Several helpers unpacked the branches and strung new lights on a 45-foot illuminated Christmas tree outside the Murray Nelson Government Center last week. With help from Wire Nuts and Florida Keys Electric Cooperative, the tree, now known as “Holly,” was assembled and the star placed just in time for the 13th annual Light Up Key Largo festivities on Saturday, Nov. 19.

A holiday festival that transforms a park into a magical wonderland is taking place a little earlier than in years past. Organizers say it’s because they wanted Light Up Key Largo to officially kick off the holiday festivities in the Upper Keys.

“We wanted to have the tree up so locals and visitors could enjoy it as we head into Thanksgiving,” said Nola Acker, longtime member of the Key Largo Preservation Foundation, which organizes the annual holiday event. “The tree needed a lot of work this year, and it took the businesses in the community to bring it back to life.”

Serving as a holiday beacon for more than 10 years, the Christmas tree began to show wear with each tree lighting. As a result, the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce initiated a fundraising campaign in hopes of buying a new tree. Due to the high price tag, a decision was made to refurbish the tree and add new LED lights. Thus came the #SaveHolly campaign.

“We have been fortunate enough to enjoy a grand, beautifully illuminated Christmas tree located at the Murray Nelson Government Center during the holidays,” said Roberto Alonso, Key Largo Chamber of Commerce board chairman. “This welcoming symbol of the season has greeted visitors, delighted our children and brought endless joy to our community.”

By fall, around $25,000 was raised for Holly, thanks to many local businesses and an Italian dinner fundraiser at Doc’s Diner, which raised $6,000. The tree lighting will once again highlight the festivities.

Acker said several “Holly helpers” were instrumental in preparing the tree in anticipation for this year’s Light Up Key Largo. They include members from Bluewater Community Church, as well as local Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.

“It takes a true community effort to put up this tree. Without our ‘Holly’ elves, this wouldn’t have been possible,” she said.

With the festivities beginning at 5 p.m., families will have the opportunity to take pictures with Santa and Mrs. Claus. Kids and their parents will be able to lace up the skates as the ice rink returns.

A Santa’s workshop will have kids decorating crafts, and the Christmas tales will return with a story time tent. A wreath contest will judge participants’ masterpieces, and a secret Santa store will allow families to get a start on the holiday shopping. The evening will also include music by the Mangrove Swamp Band and more than 20 vendor booths. The tree lighting takes place at 8 p.m.

Beer, wine, soft drinks and food will be available for purchase. Each kid will receive one free hot dog and drink thanks to donations by County Commissioner Holly Raschein and former county mayor Sylvia Murphy. Food will be cooked by the crew at Upper Keys Marine Construction.

Festival goers are encouraged to park at Rowell’s Park Marina, MM 102, bayside, where a shuttle will take them to the event.

For more information, visit Light Up Key Largo on Facebook.

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