Union Square tree lighting thrills festive onlookers, helps charity

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An estimated 5,000 spectators filled Union Square on Friday night to witness the annual tree lighting as The City’s Christmas season officially kicked off.

The tree, purchased by Macy’s and donated to The City, was lit at 6:26 p.m., prompting resounding applause from the holiday revelers.

It was the 17th straight year that Macy’s presented San Francisco with a tree, which this year is an 83-foot California white fir grown in the Carlton Tree Farm near Mount Shasta.

“It’s our way of giving to this great city,” Macy’s community director Laura Heffron said. “It helps us embody the holiday spirit that always shines through here.”

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, filling in for an absent Gavin Newsom, was joined by fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White and police Chief Heather Fong as they led the crowd in the countdown to the lighting.

Robert and Dawn Langefels, accompanied by their children Nick, 12, Emily, 7, Sarah, 4, and Samuel, 2, journeyed from Livermore to see the festivities, the 10th year in a row the family has attended the event.

“It started out as a fun trip into The City,” Dawn said. “But now it has become something of a family tradition.”

The 1,500 ornaments adorning the tree have taken on an added significance as the result of a donation program between Macy’s and UCSF Children’s Hospital.

Donors can now purchase a bulb on the tree, with the proceeds benefiting programs that help parents deal with the grief of a lost child.

Since the bulb donation program began in 2003, the proceeds have amounted to more than $700,000. Bulbs can still be purchased this year through the UCSF Web site.

Bob and Cheryl Stayton, who lost their 5-month-old son Jared to a rare auto-recessive genetic disease that afflicted his kidneys, are one example of a family that has benefited from the charity’s proceeds.

Through the Compass Care Program administered by Children’s Hospital, the Staytons have gained valuable assistance in dealing with Jared’s loss.

“This program has helped us answer many things we couldn’t have ourself,” said Bob, who, along with his wife and daughter, Julia, stood side-by-side with Willie Brown during the tree-lighting countdown. “We were able to process everything that happened, and honor the impact Jared had on everyone in his short life.”

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