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New London — About 10 years ago, Russ DiNoto’s Christmas tree outgrew him.
DiNoto, 64, a retired New London police officer and former chairman of the now-defunct New London Neighborhood Association, moved into his house on Washington Street in 1997 — the 1763 William Coit House — where an evergreen tree stood at just a little taller than 6 feet.
DiNoto said he used to host an annual Christmas tree-lighting party for the neighborhood, stringing the tree with lights and handing out ornaments for the children to decorate. He would bake cookies and have hot cocoa ready, even wear a Santa suit.
But when the tree grew too tall, DiNoto had to stop.
“It was too high for me to decorate,” he said.
Now, towering at about 50 feet, DiNoto’s tree stands on Parade Plaza in downtown New London, where Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio joined a large crowd of residents Saturday night to officially light the tree for New London Main Street’s annual Celebration of Lights and Song.
Main Street had recently cut its $2,500 budget for the holiday event down to $250. DiNoto, a lifelong New London resident, said when he heard about the budget woes, he decided to chip in.
“I thought, let me do something nice for the city of New London,” he said. “So I called everybody and I said, I have a big tree.”
DiNoto said with the help of a crane and a bucket truck, his tree was transported downtown, where it found new admirers in the audience of revelers, milling about the skating rink Saturday night just before the big event in scarves, coats and the occasional Santa hat.
Carols old and new wafted from the sound system; the ISAAC School Swing Choir gathered beside the tree, ready to take over with their multicultural holiday tribute to Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.
DiNoto readied his camera phone just before 5 p.m. as Finizio prepared to flip a switch on an adjacent lamppost wired up to the tree, joined by Santa Claus and a cast of holiday characters from the Eastern Connecticut Ballet — the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker.
Admiring the trimming handiwork — “It’s beautiful,” he said — DiNoto admitted he missed the days of being able to hold the celebration in his own yard, a tradition he said “kept the neighborhood together.”
“It’s a little sad, but giving to New London is better,” he said. “It makes my heart feel good.”
Finizio took the microphone in hand, moments before the tree would light up impressively golden and bright.
“And so, without further ado, for Christmas 2012, let there be light,” Finizio said to a round of applause. “Happy holidays, and Merry Christmas.”