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Downtown takes on yule sparkle

Sparkles spread from Temple Square to The Gateway on Friday as hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights twinkled on across Salt Lake City and in other communities around Utah. Lights went on and wallets came open as the annual Christmas frenzy was made official.

The festivities ushering in the yuletide season started with the flip of a switch on Main Street, setting ablaze white lights down the length of the street for the 14th year of downtown lighting. Lights at the Gallivan Center and more than 700,000 colored lights adorning trees at Temple Square also flicked on Friday night.

Lights strung around a 30-foot Christmas tree at The Gateway winked on Friday after an appearance by Kurt Bestor and, of course, the arrival of Santa and Mrs. Claus. This year's tree was donated by the Gene Hansen family in memory of a son, Matt, who was killed in a car accident 27 years ago.

"Look how it has come to life. This evergreen always blooms, and it's a symbol of why we celebrate Christmas," Bestor said.

Santa also popped in on the Main Street festivities, following a musical number by singer Rebecca Croft.

The downtown light display, which will brighten into January, began in 1965 with a modest nativity scene and lighting in the southeast corner of Temple Square and has now spread to much of the downtown area.

"The combination is a pretty nice presentation that's one of the more extensive holiday lightings in the world," said Bob Farrington, director of the Downtown Alliance. "It's all tied into the idea that downtown is more than just one street."

Although Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, flipped the oversize switch to light up Main Street, Farrington said the power to all the lights actually runs beneath the city's streets in a series of complicated switches and outlets. Altogether, the light display costs the Downtown Alliance about $100,000.

It's worth it, Farrington said, to bring in the Christmas season and to kick off the biggest selling season for the stores lining Main Street. Many of those stores will earn up to 40 percent of the year's revenues between now and Christmas, he said.

"It's not only important for symbolic reasons, but it's important for the bottom line as well," Farrington said.

This year's "Lights On" celebration also featured store windows with Christmas trees decorated for the Festival of Trees fund-raising effort on behalf of Primary Children's Medical Center. A traditional candy tree was also unveiled at Meier & Frank, harkening back to displays that lined Main Street from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Salt Lake resident Celeste Cecchini, who had worked on the all-candy tree since August, followed the simple guideline that 100 percent of the display had to be edible. The LDS Foundation has already bought Cecchini's "Sweet Dreams" tree for $7,500.

"It has been a delight. I never thought I would get to do it again," said Cecchini, who used to design the trees when the store was still run by ZCMI. "Salt Lake deserves these candy windows on Main Street again."