By: The Gate/Gloria Talamantes

The bone-chilling cold didn’t stop hundreds of neighborhood families from gathering around to decorate Christmas trees to celebrate the coming of the holidays in Back of the Yards.

Shortly before 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 4, everyone counted down in unison to see the neighborhood Christmas tree come to life with twinkling holiday lights.

The reasonably new neighborhood tradition is in its second year and celebrated in the grassy-area space between the Yards Plaza on 47th Street and Damen Avenue and the GoLo Gas Station.

Organized by Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony included participation from the various neighborhood schools, families, school staff, residents, local businesses along with the 9th District Chicago Police Department.

The tree lighting ceremony included activities for children, carolers, pan dulce from Panaderia La Central, hot chocolate and champurrado.

Hot chocolate provided by the local restaurant, Las Esperanzas and the champurrado donated by La Michoacana was a saving grace for many attendees. The warm beverages were necessary as the temperatures weren’t as pleasant as last year’s unseasonably warm temperatures.

“I was really happy that they had conchas and hot chocolate because I’m cold and it warmed my soul a little and it was really good,” said Betsy Calvillo.

Calvillo is a freshmen basketball player and student who attends the Back of the Yards College Preparatory (BOTYCP).

She was extremely excited to see that her grade school, San Miguel School was a part of the Christmas tree decorating this year.

“I see more schools have trees this year, last year at my old school [San Miguel], we didn’t have a tree but this year they do and I just see more faces, more people and it’s nice. We came here on behalf of the basketball team to support and to be with the community,” said Calvillo. “I’m happy they are doing this. Last year, I came and it was pretty cool to see all these schools come together and see all these people come and help and all these beautiful Christmas trees– makes the community more beautiful and brings us all together.“

Every year, BYNC invites local schools to participate in the ceremony. Each participating school gets assigned a tree to decorate with students, families, staff and neighborhood kids. 

Amongst the participating school’s and community groups, were Seward Communication Arts AcademyLara AcademyHedges Fine and Performing Arts SchoolChavez Multicultural Academic CenterHamline Elementary SchoolSan Miguel9th District Chicago Police DepartmentRichards Career AcademyBack of the Yards College Preparatory and the BYNC Ballet Folklorico. 

Parents and children from the schools also gathered around the BYNC tent just past the stage to drop off their Letters to Santa, another neighborhood tradition that goes hand-in-hand with the neighborhood’s annual Toy Giveaway which typically takes place at Davis Square Park just before Christmas.

But unlike the Annual Toy Giveaway, the Christmas tree lighting takes place entirely outdoors.

A big tree sits front and center surrounded by the smaller ten trees that the schools and groups decorate. Leading the countdown of the tree lighting was Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) and BYNC President and CEO Craig Chico.

The event was created to promote unity in the community and bring people from all over the neighborhood together.

“We thought we would bring everyone together and we’d start with our students and our schools. We knew if we got our kids we could get the families together and more importantly we wanted the kids to know how to mingle and get along and realize that they can cross 47th and cross Ashland or cross any other boundaries in life,” said Chico. “We are really proud and so thankful to have the participation of all the schools, seven grammar school and two high schools, to get our business folks out and engaged, our elected officials, our clergy and our staff.”

Hedges Elementary School students sang Mi Burrito Savanero, a classic Spanish Christmas carol.

Monse Huesca, 12, says that she loves the song because she has memories of her and her family singing it karaoke-style as a little girl every Christmas with her family. Although she didn’t feel confident about performing for a large crowd, she said that having sung it for many years during Christmas helped her but so did her friends.

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Neighborhood youth sing Christmas carols for everyone at the annual Tree Lighting Ceremony in Back of the Yards (The Gate/Gloria Talamantes)

“I was kind of scared and I wasn’t the bravest but I got confidence because of my friends who were up there with me,” said Huesca. “So, I felt that I was with friends and they had my back.”

Initially, she hadn’t planned to sing. “They just gave me the sheet when I came. So, technically I had to get ready quickly and I’ve also been singing that song ever since I was a little girl,” said Huesca.

As soon as the Christmas carols ended, families went toward the back area where more than 100 Christmas trees were being given away to Back of the Yards families.

Many parents looked happy to be ending the night with a new Christmas tree to light up and decorate at home.

“It was an all-welcome event and we want to continue to do it every year,” said Chico.