Miracle on K Street

I had a vision of K Street, brightly lit and bustling with people singing and swinging and getting merry like Christmas. The derelict blocks of the pedestrian mall rarely attract crowds, but I turned up for the 26th annual Westfield Downtown Plaza Tree Lighting hoping for a miracle. I was not disappointed. Hundreds of the city’s festive locals braved the mall’s 7th Street threshold, on what merchants hopefully term “the biggest shopping day of the year” and culture jammers call Buy Nothing Day, to sing carols around a towering symbol of goodwill.

No, I’m not talking about the Hard Rock Café’s revolving guitar, which dwarfed the 50-foot tree, its bright neon strings a beacon to wise men seeking the blessed event of an upscale hamburger served under Freddie Mercury’s framed vinyl pants. The evergreen guest of honor, though smartly dressed in bows, bells, balls and garlands, huddled behind the giant instrument like a wallflower in a prom dress. It wasn’t until someone pulled the plug on the super-sized axe that the tree assumed its rightful importance.

Scouting a prime spot to watch the illumination, my friends and I circled behind the tree and discovered the 15-piece John Skinner Band swinging its way through jazzy renditions of holiday standards. We’d joked about not getting too close to the mall, lest we be sucked into the vortex of commerce, but the stores seemed much less crowded than the street. Folks streamed in from all directions, many wearing Santa hats or the pneumatic headgear provided by three strolling balloon artists.

The trio of balloon twisters was augmented by two mascots: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with striped muffler and electric schnoz, and Westie the Westfield Downtown Plaza’s … well, to be honest, we had no idea what Westie was. We studied him as he sauntered by, shaking hands and hugging children, and then debated his species.

I thought his long pointy ears, pink nose and white underbelly suggested either a fox or an antelope. My friend was more specific: “Um, definitely some kind of tan-and-white animal,” he said.

Fortunately, Y92.5 deejay and faux-wildlife specialist Paul Robins solved the mystery. Westie peeled himself away from excited children and took the stage, where Robins emceed alternating performances by the John Skinner Band and charming a cappella ensemble the Edlos. “Look, it’s Westie!” Robins called. “Nothing says Christmas like a kangaroo!”

We practically slapped our foreheads. Of course! A kangaroo. It’s hard to think of another animal more representative of an urban shopping center in North America—besides, say, any living thing native to the Northern hemisphere. But who needs logic when holiday magic is nigh? A man behind us lifted his daughter to his shoulders and pointed at Westie. “See the deer, honey?” he said.

Then, in a shocking display of furry showboating, Rudolph mounted the stage and quickly upstaged Westie’s chummy waving with some enthusiastic hoofing, as if to say, “I’m the deer here.”“Check out the hip action on Rudolph!” Robins quipped.

We did. We had to check out something, since Santa, Mayor Heather Fargo, and other Sacramento dignitaries were long overdue. Their trolley missed its window in the light-rail schedule and was stuck behind commuter trains. As the bands recycled holiday hits, the crowd eagerly examined passing light-rail cars for Old Saint Nick. Passengers on the Meadowview and Folsom trains looked surprised to see K Street flooded with revelers.

When the trolley finally arrived, whistle blasting and Santa waving, the crowd erupted into cheers. The mayor and county supervisor trailed the man in the red suit through the throngs to the stage. After a brief round of “Ho ho hos!” and a quick 5-4-3-2-1 countdown, the tree was ablaze with white light. Before we could say, “Ooh! Ah!” fireworks burst from the roof of the mall.

It was beautiful, it was loud, and in a heartbeat it was over. Satisfied with the spectacle, the crowd scattered into the night. Stirred by the gunshot-like sounds of the pyrotechnics, residents peered nervously out their windows. Below, K Street was as empty as ever.