The thing about a tradition is you do it no matter the year — or the weather.
Several thousand people braved almost constant rain and temperatures dropping into the 30s Thursday night on the Country Club Plaza to watch the 86th lighting ceremony.
The crowd was a sea of umbrellas, raincoats and ponchos covering flannel, down jackets and earmuffs. Unlike past years, it wasn’t difficult to get a spot close to the stage on Nichols Road up until half an hour before the formal program began. Many spectators who arrived early took refuge under storefront overhangs, in parking garages or in the handful of stores that opened their doors during the event.
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Best-selling author Gillian Flynn, a Kansas City native whose book “Gone Girl” was adapted into a hit movie, did the honors of flipping the switch at 6:55 p.m. with her family and a little girl pulled from the crowd.
Flynn, who also served as grand marshal of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March, joked that after being known for writing “dark and scary” books it made sense for her to oversee a lighting ceremony with a similar mood.
The burst of Christmas lights outlining the Plaza buildings was accompanied shortly after by fireworks, which glowed and boomed almost in defiance of the downpour.
Brigid Bonner, 5, of Denison, Iowa, was among the many children ignoring the rain and cold to dance along to the Christmas music coming from the stage and marveling at the lights and fireworks.
Her mother, Shani Bonner, said she and her family — including her other daughters Genevieve, 2, and Camilla, 4 — had been to the Plaza and seen the lights before. But this was the first time they had seen the actual lighting.
“It was really cool but a little wet,” Shani Bonner said.
Krista Pond and her two daughters, Emily and Natalie, drove down from Omaha, Neb., to see the lighting ceremony for the first time.
Three hours before the big moment, the Ponds said they were excited as they camped out in the doorway of Eddie Bauer, staying out of the rain and waiting for the store to open so they could do some early Christmas browsing. Krista Pond said Omaha had a similar lighting event, but she had heard about the Plaza ceremony from friends here.
“We just wanted the kids to get out and experience something different,” she said.
Karen, Dan and Marc Carmack of Liberty said it was the second time they had seen the ceremony but the first time in the rain. It was the also the first time they had gone out for Thanksgiving dinner, eating at Brazilian restaurant Fogo de Chao.
“This is our night of celebration,” Karen Carmack said.
Jennifer Carpenter of Lansing said she had taken her children to see the lights for 10 years and was now passing on the tradition to her grandchildren, Jennifer, 19, and Jalisa, 12, who were in town from Fort Worth, Texas, and seeing the lighting for the first time. The three huddled under ponchos waiting for the show to start.
“It’s a fabulous experience of being part of this special thing we have in Kansas City instead of just shopping,” the grandmother said.
Maureen Liljegren of Overland Park said her family was watching the lighting for the first time even though they’ve been coming down to the Plaza for 15 years. Usually they’ve been out of town for Thanksgiving.
Wearing a blinking garland lei, Liljegren said the event served as a proper kickoff to the holiday season.
“We’ll start allowing ourselves to listen to Christmas music in the car,” she said.
Elizabeth Pajor and Mieke Westra, both 18 and from Kansas City, danced together in the rain to stay warm while their friends Nhan Vacca, 18, and Jaya Phillips, 19, huddled under an umbrella and laughed.
Vacca said the quartet had been attending the lighting ceremony since they were little. Now as they’ve begun to go their separate ways — she’s attending school in Warrensburg, Mo. — the ceremony is a chance to reconnect.
“We’re proud to be from Kansas City, and this is one of the staple traditions of Kansas City,” she said. “It’s something that brings us all together.”