Back of the Yards celebrates first tree lighting ceremony

Marta Jimenez places the star on Seward's tree during the Back of the Yards neighborhood Tree Lighting.

Marta Jimenez places the star on Seward’s tree during the first Back of the Yards Tree Lighting Ceremony. (The Gate News/Vanessa Burciaga)

The blustery winds didn’t stop hundreds of Back of the Yards (BOTY) students and their families from decorating holiday trees for the first annual tree lighting ceremony.

Organized by Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), the new neighborhood tradition was celebrated on the unseasonably warm Monday evening of Dec. 4. The celebration included the participation of BOTY residents and six local elementary schools; Chavez, Lara, Seward, Hedges, Daley, and Hamline whose students, parents and volunteers decorated smaller trees.

The tree lighting took place next to the Yards Plaza on 47th Street and Damen Avenue.

Hot cocoa was donated by Las Esperanzas, a local BOTY business complimenting the conchas that were served for attendees during what became a neighborhood holiday social with Christmas carols, tamales and more.

Families took the opportunity to drop off letters to Santa. The letters to Santa are used for one of Back of the Yards’ longest holiday traditions–the Christmas Toy Drive, an event that is also organized by the BYNC.

As the sun set, holiday cheer was in the air. Everywhere you turned you could see smiles and hear laughter from youth and adults alike.

Marta Jimenez, a long-time Seward Elementary school volunteer and parent of three former Seward students, enjoyed the celebration and was happy to be helping decorate the school’s tree. She was honored to add the star at the very top of the tree too. “It’s very special and signifies a lot because it is a tradition that I have from my country and being able to do it here is very exciting,” said Jimenez, who celebrates traditions from Mexico.

As Jimenez stepped back to socialize with other parents, students and volunteers from Chavez Elementary school were getting ready to head back to school after having completed their tree decorating. Most all of the students later returned with their friends and parents to enjoy the rest of the afternoon’s holiday festivities.

Leading the line was Chavez Assistant Principal Emma Davis who was happy to have her students participate in the first annual tree lighting ceremony.  “Having other people from the community out, just decorating trees–it was just a festive occasion,” said Davis, “It’s something the kids will never forget.”

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Seward elementary student ornament hanging from the school’s tree during the Back of the Yards tree lighting ceremony. (The Gate News/Burciaga)

Davis explained how the kids were able to contribute to decorating one of the six trees that surround the main tree. “They made the decorations, even some of the ornaments–though some of them are store-bought, if you look [closely] some of the clear [ones], students actually designed. You’ll see them with their names on them, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and then the paper decorations which are blowing away. They made those with their art teacher Ms. Saunders.”

At Chavez Elementary, students have their traditional holiday celebration. At the primary grade level building, they have a fun activity for the students right before they leave school on winter break and a winter dance for the upper-grade students that attend the school’s second building.

At Lara, students like Melanie also have favorite holiday traditions. “My family comes together and does secret Santa, it’s the most exciting thing ever,” she said. We found Melanie decorating her school’s tree, and she thought the event was a good idea. “I think sometimes this street is dull; I think we need more decorations and I think it’s a good idea, so you [spread] more spirit around.”

Christmas carols played through the large speakers that were standing next to the stage where children from Lara and Hedges Elementary schools sang Christmas songs for everyone to enjoy.

BYNC President and CEO, Craig Chico walked around greeting the students, families, principals and community residents in attendance. Proud of the first-ever Christmas tree lighting ceremony, he shared a few words.

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Local youth enjoying the first Back of the Yards Tree Lighting Ceremony (The Gate News/Vanessa Burciaga)

“We wanted the event [here in Back of the Yards] to showcase what a great community we have, and we thought the best way to do it was to do it with our schools. Because we have six great grammar schools here and we thought we’d build off the holiday season and make everyone aware of who we are and promote some peace and unity for Back of the Yards this holiday season,” Chico said.

Not only was the ceremony made possible with the support of the local elementary schools, but also with the donations of the trees. “We had great cooperation from our schools, and we got trees donated by a great, generous company, Diaz Group,” said Chico.

Diaz Group LLC is a leader in landscaping for the Chicagoland area and a local Back of the Yards business.

In one of the tents, the BYNC’s Light in the Night (LIN) crew displayed gingerbread houses that were decorated by six local organizations in Back of the Yards.

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Light in the Night gingerbread houses decorated by local Back of the Yards organizations. (The Gate News/Vanessa Burciaga)

Light in the Night is part of a new sustainable, community-led collaborative for peace and justice in the Back of the Yards. 

Young people in Back of the Yards took their holiday celebration to their Snapchat stories and could be seen taking selfies and group pictures with their friends throughout the event. Shortly after the six schools finished decorating their trees, Chico, took the stage with the choir students followed by a blessing by Fr. David Kelly from Precious Blood Ministries of Reconciliation (PBMR) and Fr. Hugo Leon Londoño from St. Joseph’s Parish. Elected officials, State Rep. Theresa Mah, Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) and Ald. Willie B. Cochran (20th) also went on stage before the countdown.

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The Back of the Yards tree lighting. (The Gate News/Vanessa Burciaga)

The music stopped and Chico led the countdown from 10 and together the Back of the Yards community voices echoed in countdown unison. At the end of the countdown, the first Back of the Yards tree lit up and the community continued to socialize, while others walked home after a night of holiday cheer.