A Baltimore tradition marking an unofficial start to the holiday season, the Washington Monument lighting in Mount Vernon will celebrate 50 years on Thursday, Dec. 2 from 5-8 p.m.
People had always gathered in Mount Vernon Place socially, but former Baltimore City Mayor William Donald Schaefer had the idea of formalizing that into something unique to the city, says Mike Evitts, vice president of communications for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
“Baltimoreans like to do things a little bit differently,” he says. “Any city could have a tree.”
Instead of a Christmas tree lighting, the city chose to feature a bit of its history. Its monument of George Washington was built in 1815, making it even older than Washington, D.C.’s version, says Lance Humphries, executive director of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy.
The conservancy was formed to renovate the Baltimore landmark 10 years ago. Its $7 million restoration won 14 design and restoration awards from city, statewide and nationally, Humphries says.
It reopened in time for the monument’s bicentennial celebration in 2015.
Since then, the monument has about 25,000 visitors per year and many don’t know you can climb the 227 steps to the top, he says. Humphries adds that there are accounts of people climbing it in newspapers from 200 years ago.
Its location on a hill in the center of the city makes it perfect for a lighting that is visible all over Baltimore, Evitts says.
“I can’t think of a more impactful beacon of light during the dark winter than to turn our monument into this focal point,” he says.
The lighting itself is the anchor to a festive seasonal gathering at 699 Washington Place, presented this year by BGE and produced by the Downtown Partnership, with the Baltimore Office Promotion of the Arts, Baltimore City Recreation and Parks and the conservancy, which will take the reins next year.
From its humble beginnings, the event has now become an annual tradition drawing between 10,000 and 15,000 people spread out among the four park greens surrounding the monument in the first week of December to enjoy food, music and entertainment.
Evitts notes one benefit is that as a non-denominational holiday lighting, it’s become a tradition for families of all backgrounds. In his 20-year involvement with the event, he’s seen children who attended now bringing their own children and grandchildren.
With restaurants, cafes, museums and galleries filled with people and storefronts showcasing holiday displays, it’s also a great way to support local businesses.
New this year is Makers Market, featuring local craft vendors including Hon’s Honey and The Black Genius Art Show and all local food vendors such as SoBeachy Haitian Cuisine, the first family-owned Haitian restaurant in the city, and Baltimore favorite Jimmy’s Famous Seafood.
Entertainment also highlights Baltimore-based acts including a pre-show by DJ Impulse, who co-created The Night Brunch food and music infusion across Baltimore, and trumpeter Brandon Woody, who was one of five musicians selected for the Brubeck Institute Jazz Quintet scholarship program in its 2016-2017 season.
Morgan State Choir has always been the bedrock and showstopper, Evitts says.
With Baltimore City’s New Year’s Eve fireworks canceled this year, the monument lighting will also be the only chance of seeing fireworks during the 2021 holiday season.
The show put on by Grucci—a world-renowned fireworks producer that achieved a Guinness World Record for the largest aerial fireworks shell in 2018—will be choreographed to holiday music.
Last year the lighting was shown virtually in partnership with WJZ Channel 13. And with Mount Vernon Place’s Flower Mart— the state’s oldest fest since 1911—also going virtual this year, Humphries says it was nice to see people back in the square.
“It’s exciting for people to actually be able to get together and enjoy this space again ’cause it’s such a beautiful place to be,” he says.
The Downtown Partnership will be passing the torch to the conservancy in planning the event next year. Humphries says a priority will be exemplifying what the lighting represents— “showcasing the great things that Baltimore has to offer,” he says.