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The Christmas tree-lighting ceremony: It all started in Perkasie

It was that magical moment Saturday night: When the evergreen was illuminated, white lights sparkled into the December night, and a glow fell over the holiday revelers of Perkasie.

It was that magical moment Saturday night: When the evergreen was illuminated, white lights sparkled into the December night, and a glow fell over the holiday revelers of Perkasie.

Today, it's a familiar scene nationwide. But in the Bucks County borough, the Christmas tradition is steeped in a longer history than anywhere else in the United States: Perkasie boasts the oldest municipal tree-lighting ceremony in the nation.

The festivities, which were played out for a 107th time Saturday night in Perkasie, are storybook-worthy: Santa comes over the hill on a truck, heralded by Boy Scouts. The mayor recites a Yuletide poem. A barbershop quartet strolls the town. A 35-foot blue spruce towers in the center, waiting to be lit.

The annual event began in 1909, barely beating the first flakes of one of the region's all-time worst blizzards. On Christmas morning, about 200 children gathered in front of the post office to receive presents delivered by Santa riding on a black sleigh led by a team of black horses, according to a 1934 report in the (Perkasie) Central News. That year marked Perkasie's first community tree ceremony; the next year, the town upgraded the event by electrically lighting the tree.

According to historical records, a local organization conceived of the tree event as an occasion to hand out gifts to children and provide for needy families. Today, the tradition looks a little different, but the spirit remains.

"The excitement and the atmosphere as the people are singing 'Here Comes Santa Claus' and the children cheering. . . . It is very festive," said Mayor John Hollenbach.

He remembers attending the lighting as a child in the 1950s. Now, Hollanbach recites " 'Twas the Night Before Christmas" at the festival each year with his seven grandchildren by his side.

Last year, Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) made the town's claim to fame official, reading it into the record on the floor of the House that Perkasie "began a tradition that has spanned generations and leads the nation" with its 1909 community tree.

"Being that it is a small town, it's really exciting to have something like that," said Kelli Yandolino, owner of En Arabesque Dancewear, one of the local businesses that participates each year.

The first lighting in New York City's Madison Square Park occurred in 1912; at the White House it was 1923; and in Philadelphia, the date is uncertain, but a mention of a City Hall tree-lighting appeared in The Inquirer as early as 1955. The city brought in a llama to create a "Yuletide atmosphere" for the event, the report said, because no reindeer were available.

In Perkasie on Saturday, Santa came over the hill and into the town center at 7 p.m., riding in a Perkasie Electric truck. He was lifted to the top of the tree in a cherry-picker, and placed a star at the top. Down below, the mayor, accompanied by a child who won a drawing, threw the switch to light the tree, and Santa showered candy canes down on the crowd.

"People refer to it as Norman Rockwellesque," said borough events coordinator Linda Reid. "It's a very sweet event."

The event included food, drinks, carolers and an estimated crowd of nearly 5,000. The simple tradition got a reboot after 1988, when a fire leveled a block and a half of Perkasie's downtown. The Perkasie Town Improvement Association, born out of the need to rebuild after the fire, became involved and brought local merchants, food, and music to the tree lighting, Hollenbach said.

At En Arabesque Dancewear, which sits half a block from the tree, the Sugarplum Fairy - a high-school ballerina - stood in the window to interact with passersby all evening. Some of Yandolino's neighbors also get in on the festivities.

"It's all about being part of the community," Yandolino said.

"We all work very hard every day to be here, and it's nice for that moment, that one night, for everyone to come all together."