The holidays can be a bittersweet time for those who have lost loved ones.
But on Tuesday, 130 parents, spouses, children, life partners, and friends gathered on the lawn of the Moorestown Friends Meetinghouse to recall the joy their departed ones had brought them.
"At the rising of the sun and in its going down . . .," intoned speaker James Wujcik, who stood under a dark and leafless maple tree. The crowd, who clutched unlit candles, responded with: "We remember them."
It was the start of the 28th annual "tree of life" ceremonies that Samaritan Healthcare and Hospice, based in Marlton, is hosting in towns around South Jersey.
Tuesday's ceremony, the first of four, began at 7 p.m. and featured music by the Moorestown Friends School choir, candle lighting, and a tree lighting.
"I'm here to remember my mom," Patricia Wurtenberg said. Emma Wurtenberg of Mount Laurel died last year. "She loved Wildwood," her daughter recalled, and laughed. "And every Christmas she would sing 'Let It Snow.' "
"There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of even one small candle," Samaritan chaplain Betty Warner told the crowd. She read a poem urging people to call upon happy or heartfelt memories in times of sadness.
Her words were was followed by the candle-lighting ceremony, long a centerpiece of these events.
Carrying lighted candles, Samaritan staff and volunteers circulated among those in the crowd, lighting theirs, and invited them to light the candles of the people next to them and speak the name of the person they came to remember.
"Our hope tonight," Warner said, "is that we can lift each other with images of light."
A hymn by the choir was followed by a lighting of a maple tree, which bore a simple string of white bulbs spiraling to the top.
Although the hospice sends out notices of the ceremonies to families that have recently been served by Samaritan, the events "are open to anyone who has lost a loved one," said Carol Paprocki, Samaritan's communications director. "It can be a meaningful and quite beautiful way to begin the holidays."
The tree lighting was followed by a moment of silence and a parting benediction, after which the choir sang "Let There Be Peace on Earth."
Many in the crowd then repaired to the meetinghouse, where they remembered their loved ones over cookies and cocoa.
"We're here for our dad, Joseph P. Burke Sr.," who died in November 2010, said Bernadette Malinowski of Mount Laurel, who attended with her sister, Lori Rodolico of Delran, and mother, Dolores Burke of Cinnaminson. "He was a number-one joker," she said.
Theresa Miller, Moorestown parks and recreation director, was there for her mother, Geraldine McGettigan, who died in July. "She always told you the truth," she said.
Cheryl McCoy of Browns Mills came to remember her life partner, Suzanne Mullen, who died in March 2012. "She had a great sense of humor," said McCoy.
"And a good heart," added her friend Donna Breece.
Angie Huber and Jane Phillips said they had come to remember their mother, Angie Cucinotta of Beverly, who died in May.
"Mom loved everybody," said Phillips. "She would sit on her front porch and wave to people, and cooked for everybody in town. She was the Italian lady everyone knew."
The other Samaritan "tree of life" ceremonies:
West Deptford Municipal Building, Grove and Crown Point Roads; outdoors, 7 p.m. Wednesday.
Collingswood Senior Community Center, 30 Collings Ave.; indoors, 7 p.m. next Wednesday.
Medford Memorial Middle School, 55 Mill St.; outdoors, 7 p.m. Dec. 12.