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In Amherst, the maple is merry and bright

  • Emily Case of Shutesbury receives a treat from Insomnia Cookies Dec. 1, 2017, during the Merry Maple Festival and Tree Lighting at the Amherst Town Common. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Sarah Vanjur-Roberts, 13, of Amherst, kisses Leah, a Haflinger horse from Muddy Brook Farm, Dec. 1, 2017, during the Merry Maple Festival and Tree Lighting at the Amherst Town Common. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Max Chin, 4, of Amherst, tries out a fire truck during an open house at the Amherst Fire Department Dec. 1, 2017, as part of the Merry Maple Festival and Tree Lighting at the Amherst Town Common. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Firefighter Casey Bergeron, left, talks to Jane and Alison Rheingold of Shutesbury and their twin boys, Jacob, left, and William, both 2, during an open house at the Amherst Fire Department Dec. 1, 2017, as part of the Merry Maple Festival and Tree Lighting at the Amherst Town Common. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Visitors gather Dec. 1, 2017, for the Merry Maple Festival and Tree Lighting at the Amherst Town Common. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Assistant Fire Chief Lindsay Stromgren, left, and Samuel Carter, 4, of Northampton, work together to attach garland to a pop up tent during an open house at the Amherst Fire Department Dec. 1, 2017, as part of the Merry Maple Festival and Tree Lighting at the Amherst Town Common. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • A large crowd gathers to watch as the holiday lights strung on a prominent tree are flicked on to illuminate Amherst Town Common Dec. 1, 2017, during the annual Merry Maple Festival and Tree Lighting. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY

  • Aurora Olanyk, 7, of Shutesbury, left, and Rose Collins, 8, of Amherst, are illuminated by holiday lights strung on a prominent tree at the Amherst Town Common Dec. 1, 2017, during the annual Merry Maple Festival and Tree Lighting. GAZETTE STAFF/SARAH CROSBY



Staff Writer
Friday, December 01, 2017

AMHERST — Middle schoolers sang Christmas carols on the Town Hall steps, while hundreds of Amherst residents gathered downtown Friday for what many agree was the warmest evening for the Merry Maple Festival in recent memory.

“Usually this is one of our first bitter, bitter cold days and everybody is freezing, but this is not bad,” said Lindsay Stromgren, Amherst’s assistant fire chief.

The warm weather did not dampen any holiday spirits; while the Amherst Middle School seventh grade choir sang, ponies from Muddy Brook Farm towed families around the parking lot and children chased each other around the town common.

“It’s a big influx of people to town, creating community and a sense of place,” said Sarah la Cour, executive director of Amherst Business Improvement District. “Last year we heard folks say they came back to town just to see the tree again, and that means they probably came and had another meal, they probably did a little shopping, so it’s a way to keep people coming back to town.”

La Cour, a former landscape architect and adjunct University of Massachusetts Amherst professor, was handing out canvas tote bags promoting Saturday’s “Pack the Sack” sale, a townwide 20-percent-off sale with more than 30 participating businesses. Amherst BID co-sponsored the celebration with the Chamber of Commerce and TD Bank, and held the solemn responsibility of stringing the tree with lights.

“Actually, squirrels chewed through last year’s lights, so we had to take them all down and have whole new ones restrung,” la Cour said.

Soon after the church bell chimed 5 p.m., the audience counted down the seconds before the large maple tree lit up.

“It’s a nice tradition and it’s nice to get people to come out and see the town,” said Paula Lima Jones, an assistant teacher at the Spring Street Preschool. Jones said she saw many familiar faces among the young children running around the common.

Filling in for Santa Claus, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan dressed for the occasion and met children in the Amherst Chamber of Commerce Visitor’s Center. He rode a fire truck toward the town common, preceeded by the University of Massachusetts Minuteman Marching Band, soon after the tree was lit.

“This is the first year I’ve done this, but I did it for 10 years with my parish, so I come with experience,” Sullivan said.

Earlier in the evening, the Amherst Fire Department held an open house, giving away pencils, stickers and pamphlets, and allowing children to climb inside a fire truck and ambulance.

“It’s always good to see kids here in a non-emergency setting,” Stromgren said. “So if we ever have to deal with them, if it’s medical or fire or something, it’s not quite as scary.”

University of Massachusetts Amherst students Justin Goldschmidt, 20, from New Jersey and Gary Schirgwin, 22, of Agawam volunteered for the festival through their fraternity, Delta Chi, which organizes members to help at multiple community events throughout the year.

“It’s been a very interesting day,” Goldschmidt. “The people here are very different than the people I would experience in New Jersey, in a good way.”

Schirgwin added that he enjoyed the way Amherst feels.

“It’s like a quaint, small-town feel; I really like it,” said Schirgwin, passing out free Atkins Farms doughnuts. “My town would never give free anything, so it’s a very different experience.”

With a full-time staff of two, the BID partners with 86 property owners and about 170 businesses to promote the health and sustainability of Amherst’s economy with events like these. In addition to decorating downtown, the organization helps promote local businesses and lobbied the town for free parking on Saturday.

“They should do more of it,” said Amherst resident Anna Rita Napoleone. “We’re a new family here, and I think the expectation was there was more of these kinds of events. And this is great; I’d just like to see more of it.”

The annual Merry Maple Festival takes place on the first Friday of December to commemorate the lighting of the maple tree on the Town Common. To accompany the event, Amherst BID put on a window-decorating contest for local businesses.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.