Rogers City keeps holiday celebrations low-key

Traditions modified amid pandemic after tree lighting ceremony is cancelled

News Photo by Julie Riddle Rogers City resident Janice Bisson wanders among decorated Christmas trees at Westminster Park in Rogers City on Sunday.

ROGERS CITY — For more than two decades, residents of Rogers City have met in the dark on Thanksgiving Eve. Gliding among the hundred-some trees erected in Westminster Park, people in hats and mittens mingle and chat, waiting for the trees to come ablaze with light.

This year is different.

This year, the town’s annual Christmas tree lighting ceremony — like so many other festivals, traditions, and beloved events that mark the passage of the seasons — was cancelled as a safety precaution as COVID-19 numbers escalated around the state and region.

The Alpena Bolenz Jewelry Holiday Parade was one of the casualties of the coronavirus pandemic, cancelled mid-November under a flurry of newly-announced positive COVID-19 cases in Northeast Michigan.

Was the decision to cancel the Rogers City event difficult?

“Oh, gosh yes,” said Rich Wozniak, Vice President of the Optimists Club that coordinates the annual event and chairman of the tree committee.

Committee members mulled over the fate of the ceremony through many meetings, considering multiple options to allow the lighting to continue.

Though they considered many options, they couldn’t come up with a way to safely conduct the event, Wozniak said.

Most years, more than 100 people usually attend the lighting. They stand shoulder-to-shoulder as they sip hot cocoa and read the signs in front of the trees, each bearing the name of loved ones or heartfelt wishes for health, happiness, and peace.

Children with excited eyes cluster as they wait for Santa, who arrives in grand style just in time to officially light the trees with a flourish of oversized candy canes.

“It’s a bummer,” having to cancel the event, Wozniak said. But, he said, as in communities across the country, Rogers City leaders had to make the hard decision to keep their holiday celebrations low-key this year.

The trees — 132 of them, harvested from a grower in Cheboygan — were still set up in the park, available to be adopted by local families.

Unlike some years, this year every tree sold, Wozniak said.

Despite the cancelled tradition, the trees remain a fixture of the town’s holiday celebration, evoking memories of better days and loved ones who struggled through tough times of their own.

Signs in front of the trees share loving remembrances, emblazoned with familiar Presque Isle County names — Brege, Hein, Saile, Budnik.

Many of the trees are decorated with family photos, handmade ornaments, or masses of sparky garland lavishly bestowed by young hands.

The tree lights come on at night, even without Santa’s magic canes, and during the day, people wander among the trees, reading tributes and occasionally wiping a tear.

As she has done for many years, Rogers City resident Janice Bisson decorated a tree on Sunday in memory of her husband’s grandparents, hanging quilted Christmas bulbs she taught her granddaughter to make.

The cancellation of the lighting ceremony was sad but necessary — and, she agreed, will make those who love the small-town tradition all the more appreciative of it when it returns.

“I’m optimistic,” Bisson said. “I look forward to next year. It’s going to be better.”


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