Hundreds gathered for the annual lighting of the Rehoboth Beach Christmas tree lighting on Friday evening. Chuck Snyder video.
Attending a conference in Chicago in the 1980s, Bob Derrickson saw slides of a holiday scene in an idyllic Pennsylvania town. It gave him an inspiration.
That inspiration involved his hometown, Rehoboth Beach, where his family ran Carlton's clothing store. The business was on Rehoboth Avenue, a short distance from the boardwalk.
Derrickson's vision was to stage a Christmas tree lighting event near the bandstand to draw families into the business district on the day after Thanksgiving, traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year.
Rehoboth Beach, he reasoned, did not have a town square like that quaint Pennsylvania town but it did have a bandstand on a scenic piece of land at the foot of Rehoboth Avenue.
"As I imagined it, I thought that tree would be a perfect crown" for the downtown area, Derrickson said.
Corralling family and friends, local businesses and even the city of Rehoboth Beach, Derrickson organized the first ever tree lighting ceremony on the day after Thanksgiving, 1986.
Co-chairmen for that event were his dad, Harry, and Dominick Pulieri, owner of Grotto Pizza, which had a restaurant near the bandstand.
"It all came together nicely," Derrickson said.
Though the first crowd was modest, Derrickson remembers how much fun it was to gather with friends and neighbors to celebrate the holiday season by singing Christmas carols.
And, it accomplished a goal: Getting people into downtown Rehoboth Beach during peak holiday shopping season.
After that first tree lighting, Derrickson took over the chairmanship and convinced his close friend and Rehoboth Beach resident Doug James, a nationally acclaimed performer and songwriter, to perform at the tree lighting ceremony.
And a new tradition was born: Every year thereafter, James would sing and play the piano to entertain the crowds — and lead the carol singing.
And James said Earl Solloway Jr., a Smyrna resident with professional voice training, made the trip to Rehoboth Beach to sing a stirring rendition of "White Christmas."
"It was a lot of fun," said James, who has written songs for scores of entertainers, including Michael Bolton, Barbara Mandrell, Joe Cocker, Cher, Barry Manilow, Kenny G, Dionne Warwick and many others.
After the first event, Derrickson said they decided to find a local tree that was big enough for the space — and they would convince the owner to donate the tree for the occasion.
James said the trees are usually about 40 feet tall.
Traditionally, the tree has been cut down by Reds Dolson of J.L. Briggs & Co. in Georgetown and hauled to the site by Greg Plummer of George W. Plummer & Son of Lewes.
This year's tree, a 30-foot pine, was donated by Bill Graff and Jeff Schuck of Rehoboth. They decided to remove it from their property because of safety concerns.
After the inaugural event, more and more residents and visitors showed up in Rehoboth for the tree lighting ceremony, which was often timed to coincide with local evening television news programs.
Volunteer Betsy Baumeister said it wasn't long before the event became a local holiday tradition — even for visitors.
"Families would come into town for Thanksgiving and stay for the tree lighting ceremony," she said.
Derrickson surrendered the event chairmanship in 1999 and turned it over to Rehoboth Beach Main Street. This year's tree lighting is partially sponsored by WSFS Bank and hosted by Clear Space Theatre.
After its modest beginnings in 1986, the tree lighting event has become a holiday tradition that routinely attracts up to 5,000 people.
"At times, it spills out, over to the boardwalk," James said.
And it has remained as wholesome as it was in the beginning.
"The tree lighting has become an important family event in Rehoboth," Derrickson said.
This year, the event on Friday, Nov. 24 begins with carol singing at 6:30 p.m. A countdown leads up to the tree illumination at 7 p.m.
"It became a nice family affair," said Baumeister.