Growing up near 55th Street and Jackson Avenue on Kansas City’s East Side, attending the lighting of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree at Crown Center was never a part of Kevin Strickland’s holiday tradition.
But this year, not only did Strickland witness the annual rite of the holiday season, he was bestowed with the honor of flipping the switch.
Hundreds of spectators cheered Friday night as Strickland lowered the ceremonial switch that illuminated the massive 100-foot Douglas fir.
“I didn’t think that there was that kind of love in Kansas City,” Strickland said afterwards. “I was honored to receive it (the invitation) because I feel like it’s a pretty big deal. I was excited about it and I couldn’t turn it down.”
Strickland, 62, was exonerated in a 1978 triple murder that he has always said he did not commit. He was released Tuesday from the Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron after a judge granted a motion by Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker to release him.
Mayor Quinton Lucas announced via a tweet Thursday night that Strickland had accepted his invitation to flip the switch to turn on the lights for the tree.
“I wanted to make sure Mr. Strickland knows how loved he is, how much everybody here cares about you and how much everybody is going to continue to care about you, pray for you,” Lucas said. “This is one step in the journey. Mr. Strickland has a lot of life to live and we want to make sure you know that Kansas City is here to support you.”
Tyrann Mathieu, the Kansas City Chiefs star defensive player, had been scheduled to turn on the lights but canceled due to schedule changes. The Chiefs have a bye this week.
The Mayor’s Christmas Tree is one of the tallest in the nation and a symbol of the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Fund, which raises money to assist families in Kansas City during the holiday season.
Earlier during the event, members of the Kansas City Chorale performed a number of Christmas carols and holiday traditions.
Fireworks lit up the skies behind the Crown Center Ice Terrace as spectators trained their cellphones to capture and record the moment.
The tree is decorated with 10,600 LED white lights and nearly 100 snowflakes. It features 600 bells and 890 ball ornaments. Crown Center Square is adorned with 30,000 lights.
The Christmas tree will remain on display through Jan. 3. After the holiday, wood from the tree will be made into commemorative ornaments, which are sold the following year to benefit the Mayor’s Christmas Tree fund.
The event was held virtually last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Lucas said he was pleased to see so many people attend this year’s event.
“That’s outstanding. It’s good to see people back here in person,” Lucas said. “More than anything else, this is what the mayor’s Christmas tree is about, 113 years talking about helping our friends, our neighbors and I am just proud to have one of the greatest honorees probably in the history of this celebration.”
Hours before the lighting ceremony, a GoFundMe fundraiser to benefit Strickland showed that it grew to over $1.2 million.