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Decked out with lights

Wren Wertin
Vail Daily/Melinda KruseVail's "first family," the Fords, have been lighting Vail's Christmas tree for almost three decades. President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty, will flip the switch again today at 6:30 p.m.
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Today, locals and visitors are invited to witness a Vail tradition: the lighting of the living Christmas tree by former President Gerald Ford and his wife, Betty. This marks the 29th year the Fords, part-time Vail residents, have been a part of the ceremony. The shindig starts at 6:30 p.m., at the 40-foot tree next to the Covered Bridge in Vail Village.

“I think the tree lighting ceremony is one of the few events in our community that both locals and our guests can enjoy,” said Ian Anderson, director of communications for the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau. “It brings a real sense of community. And for those of us who have friends and family all over the country, this event really makes it feel like home.”

The golden formula for the event was set long ago. Everybody gathers at the tree and in the village, where they are greeted by local dignitaries and invited to hear blessings from local clergymen. The Dickens Carolers will sing festive favorites, and Ford will light the tree.

“The ceremony is fairly brief, but it can get cold,” said Frank Johnson, president of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau. “Come prepared to leave with a tear in your eye. I think it conjures up a lot of the special things that we all want the holidays to be.”

The tree lighting is a big part of the culture of being in Vail in the holidays, said Johnson. It’s become a tradition for visitors and residents both. It also lends a sense of ceremony to the holiday season.

“The Fords are a big part of the success of this community, and it’s fantastic that they still want to spend Christmas here,” said Anderson. “The fact that he’s been doing this for 29 years speaks volumes about the community.”

Anderson has participated in the past four tree lightings; Johnson has been to close to 20. One particular ceremony – a couple of years ago – stands out for him.

“We had the lighting right by the fountain in front of the Mountain Haus,” he recalled. “I remember looking up as Gerald Ford turned on the tree, and that year there were fireworks that went off. From where I was standing they went off right over the tree, and they played a version of “Silent Night’ by John Denver. If there were a way to epitomize the tree and the mountains and snow and fireworks and music, that would be it.”

When Ford became president of the United States, Vail was an undiscovered resort. He focused national attention on the area, and is still a part-time resident. For 29 years the Vail Valley has been honoring him with the tree lighting.

The event is free and open to the public. Dress warmly.

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555 ext. 618.


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