At 6:54 p.m. Thursday, tens of thousands of lights simultaneously illuminated the skyline of the Country Club Plaza — the 88th year signaling the beginning of the holiday season in Kansas City.
Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson and quarterback Alex Smith, along with a child pulled from the crowd, were the official switch flippers at the Plaza Lighting ceremony, which drew thousands of people on a mild Thanksgiving night.
The lights will be lit from 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. each day until Jan. 14.
Although it’s a decades-old tradition, it was new for many attendees this year, including Aurora Snodell, a Kansas Citian decked in a light-up ornament necklace and flashing wand.
“Christmas is my favorite time of the year,” said Snodell, a newlywed who is celebrating the holidays for the first time with her new husband, Chris. “It’s a whole season. There are movies. The lights. There is a whole feeling around it.”
As Chiefs fans, it was an added bonus that the players flipped the switch, she said.
Some traveled hours for the lighting and other holiday events in Kansas City this week, including Sobia Shahab, her husband and three children from St. Louis.
“We wanted a little getaway. It’s a good road trip,” Shahab said, adding that the family went ice skating and plans to attend the Mayor’s Christmas Tree Lighting on Friday at Crown Center. “It’s very festive.”
After the lighting, a fireworks display began, lighting up the faces of the crowd, which stretched along Nichols Road and spilled into side streets. The event featured holiday music, choreography and Chiefs cheerleaders throwing T-shirts and light-up footballs into the crowd.
After the fireworks, Kansas City celtic group The Elders played a concert. Other performers included Smithville’s Casi Joy, who in April made it to the playoff rounds on NBC’s “The Voice.”
Last year, tennis pro Jack Sock, who graduated from Blue Valley North High School and won two medals at the Rio Olympics, flipped the switch with the help of a 6-year-old boy who had been standing near the stage.
The lighting tradition dates to 1925, when an employee of Nichols Co., which owned the Country Club Plaza, strung 16 colored lights across the doorway of the Plaza’s first building. By 1930, the Plaza played host to the city’s first lighting ceremony.
The Plaza itself was the creation of J.C. Nichols, who was inspired by his college travels to Seville, Spain, which had colorful markets and old-world charm.
Later, as a successful real estate developer, Nichols remembered those influences as he bought land at 51st Street and Grand Avenue, transforming the swampy tract into the country’s first shopping center specifically designed with the car in mind. He snapped up land until he had purchased 55 acres at a price of more than $1 million.
Nichols drew up formal plans for the Plaza in 1922. He chose a Spanish theme that included courtyards and stucco buildings with red tile roofs and ornate towers.
Since 1930 the only time the Plaza lights were not turned on was in 1973, when then-President Richard Nixon called for curtailing the use of Christmas lights to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
WHO HAS THROWN THE SWITCH?
2016 Jack Sock
2015 Gillian Flynn
2014 Alex Gordon and Dayton Moore
2013 Rob Riggle
2012 Matt Besler, Jimmy Nielsen and Kei Kamara
2011 Eric Stonestreet
2010 Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones
2009 Jason Sudeikis
2008 David Cook
2007 Hometown soldiers from each branch of the U.S. military
2006 Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier and Clark and Tavia Hunt
2005 Dick and Carol Vermeil
2004 Mickey and Minnie Mouse
2003 Kate Spade
2002 Trent Green
2001 Tony Gonzalez
2000 Maurice Greene
1999 George Brett (again)
1998 Paul Rudd
1997 Marcus Allen
1996 Buck O’Neil
1995 Roy Williams
1994 Derrick Thomas
1991 Oleta Adams
1990 Lee Greenwood
1989 Dee Wallace
1983 Nicolette Larson
Others: Walter Cronkite, Tom Watson, William Christopher.