Globe Editorial

Boston Common: Light in the winter gloom

December 11, 2009

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Boston Common, with its vivid display of Christmas lights, has served as the city’s candelabra for almost seven decades. This year, Boston’s budget woes threatened to blot out the tradition. But private donations, especially a major gift from the Egan Family Foundation, are helping to keep the bleakness of winter at bay.

Each year on the first Thursday after Thanksgiving, city officials illuminate a donated tree on the Tremont Street side of Boston Common. For some, it symbolizes a divine presence. For others, it just evokes winter. But for everybody, the effect is enhanced by the stringing of more than 40,000 white and colored lights on dozens of oak and maple trees along the Common’s perimeter and pathways. It costs more than $100,000 to do the job right. But this year, the city’s Parks and Recreation Department had only $23,000 left in its budget to illuminate the area. As a result, the lights would be limited to the main Christmas tree and a few others near the Frog Pond.

“We had to figure out whether to cut grass or light trees,’’ says Mary Hines, a spokeswoman for the parks department.

Boston can do both, courtesy of a $50,000 gift from the Egan family. Richard Egan, the co-founder of information storage giant EMC Corp., died in August. A hard-driving entrepreneur and former ambassador to Ireland, Egan could be rough around the edges. But so is the Boston Common, which is central to the character of the city. Illuminating the park is a fitting tribute from Egan’s widow, Maureen, and his five children. The Convention Center Authority, Emerson College, and Suffolk University also contributed.

The Common is the ultimate public space in Boston, and has been since Puritan times. Ideally, there would always be sufficient public funds to illuminate it. But in a moment of darkness, it’s cheering to know that private citizens will step forward to switch on the lights.

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