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Crowd gathers for memorial tree lighting

by Ryan Pivoney | December 5, 2022 at 4:04 a.m.
Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: Children erupt in applause and laughter Sunday night, Dec. 4, 2022, upon the lighting of Jack's Memory Tree at Hawthorn Memorial Gardens in Jefferson City. The tree honors the late Jack Steppelman, fondly remembered as Mr. Christmas in the city because of his elaborate holiday displays.

A 70-foot tree composed of 76,000 bulbs is lighting the grounds of Hawthorn Memorial Gardens through the holiday season.

The tree is erected annually in remembrance of the late Jack Steppelman, who was known around Jefferson City as Mr. Christmas because of the elaborate light displays he created each year.

The 10-foot blue star topping the tree is from his personal collection.

More than 100 people gathered for the eighth annual lighting of Jack's Memory Tree Sunday near the entrance to Hawthorn Memorial Gardens. The event was complete with hot apple cider, coffee and cookies, a visit from Santa Claus, a reading of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" and seasonal music from the St. Francis Expressions Youth Choir.

"We just like to have a family event where everybody can come out and enjoy it," said Jeff Hilke, one of the event's organizers.

Jack's Memory Tree became an annual tradition after Steppelman's death in 2014.

Stephanie Biggs, Jack's daughter, said she's thankful Houser-Millard Chapels has organized the event as a way to slow down the Christmas season and remember those that "made Christmases in the past so happy."

Steppelman's displays, which he often started working on shortly after the Fourth of July, featured a life-size nativity scene and a snow village, with snowmen and other figures filling his garage.

"It was an outstanding Christmas display that he had at his house," Hilke said. "It was one for the ages."

Biggs joked: "It's a miracle the house didn't burn down with all the different electrical things going on."

For many in Jefferson City, it was a tradition to visit Steppelman's house, sometimes waiting in long lines to catch a glimpse of the lights. He would often greet those that visited.

"It's in honor of him, but the nice thing is it's for everyone to come and remember their loved ones that have passed," Biggs said.

On each side of the tree are memory boards, where members of the community can leave photos, ornaments and other keepsakes to honor loved ones who will be missed this holiday season. The keepsakes can stay up until Jan. 9, after which they will be moved to the cemetery office.

"Obviously we are in that business of memorializing folks, and this is a good way for people to be able to do that," Hilke said. "In a time of the year that's traditionally hard for people going through the loss of folks, this is a way that they can hopefully ease that pain of a loss."

Hilke said his father died on the first of December 29 years ago and it still colors his holiday season.

"Hopefully this is a way for people to cherish those memories, get into the holiday spirit and remember the good times that people had with those loved ones that they've lost," he added.

Matt Luadzers attended the tree lighting with his family because his daughter was performing with the St. Francis youth choir. They also added an ornament to the memory board in honor of his wife's aunt who died earlier this year.

Houser-Millard Chapels has hosted Jack's Memory Tree for the past eight years. The tree was previously stationed at the funeral home on West Main Street before it was moved to Hawthorn Memorial Gardens in 2020.

Biggs said she likes the move to Hawthorn Memorial Garden because it's more visible and accessible for the public.

"It warms my heart to see this every year just as much as this apple cider warms my soul," said Braden Biggs, Stephanie's son and Jack's grandson.

  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: Children erupt in applause and laughter Sunday night, Dec. 4, 2022, upon the lighting of Jack's Memory Tree at Hawthorn Memorial Gardens. The tree honors the late Jack Steppelman, fondly remembered as Mr. Christmas in Jefferson City because of his elaborate holiday displays.
 
 
  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: Stephanie Biggs, the daughter of Jack Steppelman, reads "Twas the Night Before Christmas" Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, before the lighting of Jack's Memory Tree at Hawthorn Memorial Gardens. Biggs has read the story to attendees since the event began eight years ago, the year after Steppelman died.
 
 
  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: Stephanie Biggs, the daughter of Jack Steppelman, reads "Twas the Night Before Christmas" Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, before the lighting of Jack's Memory Tree at Hawthorn Memorial Gardens. Biggs has read the story to attendees since the event began eight years ago, the year after Steppelman died.
 
 
  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: The St. Francis Expressions Youth Choir, composed of third through eighth graders, performs “Hallelujah” Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022, during the lighting of Jack’s Memory Tree at Hawthorn Memorial Gardens. The choir also performed “Violet in the Snow.”
 
 
  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: There were a couple dozen ornaments left at the memory boards Sunday night, Dec. 4, 2022, after the lighting of Jack’s Memory Tree at Hawthorn Memorial Gardens. Members of the community can leave keepsakes on the boards in memory of loved ones who are no longer around to celebrate the holiday season. Ornaments can stay up until Jan. 9, 2023.
 
 

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