SAN FRANCISCO - A holiday tradition returned to San Francisco's Union Square Thursday night, as city officials gathered for the lighting of the Macy's Christmas tree.
Seamus Stannard, 9, of San Francisco was the star of the evening, getting the honor of pushing the giant button to light the tree through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Stannard then posed for photos with the city's police and fire chiefs and received a shopping trip to Macy's.
"It felt amazing," said Seamus, "I'm probably going to go shopping and see Santa."
"It feels very emotional," said Sarah Bennett, Seamus's mom, "It's a moving time, not just cause we're coming out of a pandemic, and it's been a challenging time for everybody...with health fears and everything else, we've been particularly isolated, so it feels wonderful."
The glow of lights lifted many people's spirits.
"They're very beautiful. I like them, cause when I walk through them, I feel like I'm in a fairytale," said Taia Ishchenko, a San Francisco second grader, who was carrying a bag with a newly purchased backpack. She was in Union Square on a shopping trip with her sister, mother, and grandmother.
"We're all vaccinated, and I hope this holiday will be more active. We will do some shopping even now we are going to Apple to get some gift for my oldest daughter," said Maria Ishchenko, Taia's mother.
Decorations in stores reflected a slow return to in-person shopping.
"Every year, it's so beautiful. It's a perfect time to cheer up after all this pandemic," said Amanda Garcia of South San Francisco who was out celebrating her birthday with tea at the Rotunda restaurant and some holiday shopping.
Union Square has been a holiday tradition for her, Amanda Barba, and Sonia Flores, all who drove from South San Francisco.
"We've been doing this for 14 years," said Flores.
There were some differences though this year.
"It seems a little bit more quiet still, not as vibrant," said Barba, "It feels different but I'm grateful that it's back. I mean, I'm grateful to be able to come out and enjoy it a little bit."
"I did notice right away at how empty it is," said Flores, adding that the people they met were welcoming, "The staff was very appreciative of the people that were inside there. So we went to quite a bit of retail places this afternoon. We went to four stops."
The pandemic has taken a toll. Signs advertising leases for vacant stores lined many of the blocks as H&M and other large retailers such as Uniqlo and DSW have closed their doors.
Many of the stores that remain are advertising Black Friday sales early this year, coinciding with the early tree lighting.
"Trying to get an early start on the holidays in light of some of the delays with different deliveries and things like that, and just coming out of COVID wanting to bring some happy joy and spirit early," said Marisa Rodriguez, Executive Director of the Union Square Alliance.
The San Francisco police chief and mayor say they are planning extra patrols along with an ambassador program to increase safety and welcome shoppers back.
"We've already started an increased deployment in the Union Square Area and other parts as well but during the holiday season," said Police Chief William Scott, "The ambassador program, we've hired retired San Francisco Police officers. Now we have 23. They're also working the area."
"Nothing says Christmas like people being out enjoying themselves and shopping," said Mayor London Breed, "We are doing everything we can to make sure this neighborhood, Union Square is safe."
Along with the holiday tree, Union Square is also bringing back the lighting of the Menorah on November 28th to celebrate Hannukah.
Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU. Email Jana at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or ktvu.com.