MEMPHIS, Tenn. — On Sunday evening, Whitehaven held its Christmas tree lighting ceremony outside of Southland Mall.
It comes after public outcry over the first tree led to a fundraiser to replace it.
It’s because this tree is more than just pine needles and decorations. To the people of Whitehaven, the tree a symbol of hope and pride. It represents, to them, everything good that Whitehaven was, is and can be.
“We waited on this Christmas tree lightning today, besides going to anyone else's,” Charmeal Neely-Alexander said. “It turned out to be exactly what I wanted it to be.”
That wasn’t the case when Southland Mall first unveiled it’s tree in November, which drew plenty of backlash on social media. The community group "RESPECT the Haven CDC" then worked to change things and get a new tree.
“Folks like me who grew up in Whitehaven in the 80s and 90s, we remember the Southland Mall was a magical place,” said Jason Sharif, founder of RESPECT the Haven. “We remember the old 40-foot tree — the old tree lighting that we had back when we were growing up.”
The group organized a community fundraiser for the roughly $25,000 needed for a new tree.
They reached their goal in just one week.
“We just wanted to bring that pride — that spirit — back and bring a tree that was worthy of Whitehaven,” Sharif says.
For attorney Henry Reaves, the 30-foot tree represents self-reliance.
“We were put in a situation where what they tried to give us, we felt didn't meet the standards of what this community deserves,” he said. “Once we didn't get what we were felt we were entitled to, we came together and we got it ourselves. So this is just an example of the way that we want to move on in the future.”
For Neely-Alexander, the holiday decoration represents renewal for Whitehaven.
“I think it's the beginning of something very new,” she said. “I've seen some really nice growth going on here.”
Growing up, Neely-Alexander remembers coming to the tree lighting with her mother. Now she's doing the same with her daughter Aria.
“I drank some hot cocoa, and I talked to Santa today,” the girl said, describing some of her favorite parts of the event.
With this tree shining bright, it shines a spotlight on what the people of Whitehaven can do when they come together.
“I just wanted that to be here for [my daughter],” Neely-Alexander said. “I wanted to kind of create a foundation for her so she knows all about community and volunteering — she knows what it's like to lead something in her community.”
They bought the tree from a vendor in Collierville, who included the decorations. The hope is that when children look up at it, they are reminded of the excellence that is possible in their town.