ELIZABETHTON — The traditional start to the Christmas season in Carter County will take place today at 6 p.m. when the lights to the 78-foot tall Fraser fir in front of the University of Tennessee Agricultural Extension Office are turned on. At the same time, the lights to the “Merry Christmas” sign and tree atop Lynn Mountain will come on.
This will be the 23rd year for the event. Many Carter Countians fondly remember the lightings from when they were children. One of those is Felicia English, director of the Elizabethton/Carter County Chamber of Commerce.
“I went to Elizabethton High School and all four years I was in the choir,” English said. “I sang under that tree for four years.”
She said it seems surreal to have sung for choir director Debbie Gouge all those years and now to be working with her to coordinate the activities at the tree lighting.
Her experiences inspired the theme for this year’s Christmas season: “A Tender Tennessee Christmas.”
“We sang that song every year right after the tree was lit,” English said. “When I was thinking of a theme for this year that just came up. When I suggested it to Debbie Gouge, I know it brought some tears and she said it was great.”
The great tree stands outside Extension Agent Keith Hart’s office and he has been involved in every one of the events. He agreed with English that the choir has played a big part in the tradition. “Debbie Gouge is critical in making all this happen,” Hart said. “I don’t think she gets enough credit for all she does for the community.”
In addition to the choir, there will also be two soloists performing at this year’s lighting: Brittany Kyte and Kim Lyons. There will also be an appearance from the Overmountain Men. The Bonnie Kate will provide hot apple cider.
The honor of turning on the lights will go to Michael Barnett, proprietor of Big John’s Closeouts. He is being doubly honored because he will also serve as grand marshal of the Christmas Parade.
“This is a real honor,” Barnett said, “not that I feel I am worthy of it.”
“He has been a great leader of the community,” English said.
Barnett has been extremely active in the community. He has led a successful effort to obtain funding for a new animal shelter for the city and county and serves as president of the Animal Shelter Building Committee. He is also president of the Friends of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Area. He is a member of the Downtown Business Association and the Chamber of Commerce. He also helps the Abortion Alternative and Women’s Center and the East Tennessee Spay and Neuter organization.
In addition to his work in these official capacities, English said Barnett has also been a big help in many other ways, such as his support for the annual Christmas parade and 4th of July parade.
His business is located just across the street from the marshaling area for the parade. The marchers have to wait for quite a while in the freezing weather for the Christmas parade and for quite a while in the blistering heat of the 4th of July parade.
Barnett has always allowed the marchers to use his store as a place to warm up or cool down and to use the bathrooms. He also serves them hot drinks at Christmas and cool water on the 4th of July.
But the real star of tonight’s community celebration will be the 78-foot-tall tree, which is believed to be the tallest Fraser fir in the state. The tree grew in a climate that was not suitable. Frasers are native to the highest elevations of the Southern Appalachians and don’t do well below 4,500 feet because of the heat.
Despite the handicap, this tree has thrived ever since it was plucked off the top of Roan Mountain by Confederate Maj.Henderson Folsom to landscape his handsome home shortly after the Civil War.