Downtown Omaha was the place to be Thanksgiving evening as the Holiday Lights Festival opened with a lighting ceremony in the Gene Leahy Mall.
The Mastersingers began entertaining the crowd at 5:30 p.m. Mayor Jim Suttle, accompanied by three of his grandchildren, led the crowd in a countdown and turned on the hundreds of thousands of twinkling lights shortly after 6 p.m.
Applause broke out as the lights lit up the mall; 16th Street between Howard and Dodge Streets; and 10th Street between Douglas Street and Abbott Drive. Many businesses in the area also turned on light displays.
The holiday tradition of the lighting ceremony, which started in 1999, draws thousands each year to the downtown area. With temperatures near 50, a mild evening for late November, no one seemed unduly distressed about being cold.
Vic Gutman, whose company Vic Gutman and Associates managed the evening, said crowd size is always dependent on the weather. On warmer Thanksgiving evenings, like Thursday, he said, the crowd is usually between 15,000 and 20,000. But “when it’s really cold, we’re lonely,” he said.
He said the Thanksgiving event has come to mean a lot to people in the area. “It has become a real tradition in people’s lives.”
Katie Baze and her 3-year-old daughter, Annabelle, attended the event for the second time. “The atmosphere is great,” Baze said. “It’s really nice this year.”
Also happy about the mild weather was Patricia Newman, who was attending the lighting ceremony for the first time — but not the last time. She had come to hear a friend, Donald Gerber, sing with the Mastersingers.
But she and her golden retriever, Oscar, were a magnet for some of the children in the crowd. “He’s excited but well-behaved,” she said, as Oscar held up a paw for a toddler to shake.
Soon people headed over to the Holland Performing Arts Center for the 7 p.m. free “Making Spirits Bright Holiday Concert” with vocalist Susie Thorne accompanied by the Nebraska Wind Symphony.
Many of the shops and restaurants in the Old Market also stayed open until 8:30 for people who wanted to stay in the holiday mood by enjoying an evening meal or getting in some shopping.
The Thanksgiving Lighting Ceremony is the first event in the Holiday Lights Festival, which continues through Jan. 6. The lights can be viewed daily from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m.
The festival will include holiday concerts on the mall, ice skating at the ConAgra Ice Skating Rink, the Wells Fargo Family Festival on Dec. 2 and a New Year’s Eve fireworks show.
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