Matthew Williams had a ringside seat last Friday night. He was settled in his beach chair, gazing out onto Dead Horse Beach under a clear, starry night sky. The 15-year-old Salem resident took a sip from his paper cup and starting playing a video game on his phone, anxious for the festivities to begin.
Fourth of July fireworks? Not quite. Matthew, like many other hearty souls, was bundled up in scarf, hat and mittens as he sipped hot chocolate and waited for the Salem firemen to torch the heap of Christmas trees whose enormous silhouette brought to mind Monet’s haystacks in Giverney.
The last time Matthew attended the Salem Christmas Tree Bonfire he was seven years old. “This is a lot bigger. It’s a cool sight to see!” he said. His mom, Suzi Williams, added that this year the bonfire was even more meaningful for her family. “We had a real tree to put in,” she said, and laughed as she and Matthew tried to find it in the pile.
Hundreds of people braved the cold to be part of the experience. Many dragged trees and wreaths behind them, and the firemen were happy to add them to the growing pile.
Started in 2004 by then Mayor Stanley J. Usovicz, Jr., the Park and Recreation Commission, and Fire Marshall Captain William Hudson, the Christmas Tree Bonfire is a long-standing Salem happening.
Ellen Talkowsky, City of Salem Special Events Coordinator, remembers that first bonfire. “They just wanted to start a new Salem tradition — to go down to the beach, see your neighbors and friends, and wish them a Happy New Year,” she recalled.
The Gathering, a local church, provided and served free hot chocolate for all. The group also runs the five weekends of live music at the Fountain Stage every October and paints children’s faces every July 4th.
“I look forward to it every year and I know many other residents do as well,” said Mayor Kim Driscoll.
New this year was the Cookie Monster food truck, and there was a line outside its door as revelers happily devoured the warm cookies on such a cold night, anxiously awaiting the moment when the pile of trees would go up in flames.
Finally the countdown began, and the frigid air turned several degrees warmer with the electricity of anticipation. Mayor Driscoll announced the countdown from ten to zero, and the Salem firemen torched the pile. Within seconds, flames shot up over the sky. Luckily, the ocean breeze cooperated, blowing the smoke over the crowd’s heads instead of into their eyes.
“The Fire Department is expert at putting out fires, but they do a really good job of starting one too,” said Talkowsky.