FIREWORKS and cheers filled the air as a record crowd gathered to watch sporting heroes switch on Sunderland’s festive illuminations.
More than 6,000 people looked on as former Olympian and Sunderland University Chancellor Steve Cram joined the city’s mayor, Coun Norma Wright and Wearside Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls Alyson Dixon and Fiona Tozer to kick-start Christmas in Sunderland.
Mr Cram, who had come straight from the airport after a holiday, said: “I think it’s been an absolutely fantastic event and it’s great to see so many people out.
“I love stuff like this and it’s great the city’s still able to do this.
“I went away just as the long nights were drawing in, and it’s great to come back to this – this is what we need to cheer us up when it’s dark and cold.
“It’s just been great.”
The switch-on event, hosted by Simon Grundy and the Sun FM Roadshow, included live music from Natasha Haws, Spray on Jeans and 27 Side Effect.
School choirs from East Herrington Primary School and St Robert of Newminster, winners of the Sunderland City Sings competition, also gave festive performances to warm up the crowd before the big switch-on.
Coun Wright said: “Switching on the Christmas illuminations will be one of the highlights of my time as mayor of Sunderland.
“It was fantastic to see so many children and families together to embrace the start of Christmas in Sunderland.
“We are delighted that the Norwegian vice-consul, Lisbeth Lorentzen, could join us to switch on the lights on the Christmas tree which the people of Stavanger have kindly donated to this city once again.”
Families left the celebrations full of Christmas spirit.
Lynn Humble, a children’s centre worker from North Farm, was at the event with daughter Milly, seven, a Grindon Infant School pupil, and grandparents Ronnie and Audrey Burlinson, both 63.
Lynn said: “It’s the first time we’ve come and it’s been great. My parents live round the corner now so it’s not far to come, and it’s been really nice. I feel all Christmassy now.”
Philip Jarvis, a promoter, and Julie Johnson, a youth worker, both 34, were out with children Astrid, six, Esme, five, and Isis, four months.
Julie said: “It was amazing. It’s been a really great night. We came last year as well and I think the firework display this year was definitely an improvement.”
This year’s switch-on simultaneously activated lights in the Bridges shopping centre and Mowbray Park.
The event coincided with the start of Thursday late-night shopping in the city centre, and families flocked to the shops after the celebrations – boosting trade in the city centre.
The switch-on came after the Washington illuminations launch event on Wednesday.
Southwick will also get its own switch-on event on Monday. Celebrations start at 4.30pm.