COSTA MESA — A white fir tree towering at a whopping 96 feet requires equally impressive presents.
"If you have a tree as big as this, I would expect to see Santa sitting under there," said Newport Beach resident Jordan Kessler, 13, looking up at South Coast Plaza's holiday tree while waiting for the annual lighting ceremony to begin on Thursday.
"Or Justin Beiber," added friend Rainey Finley, 13.
The girls had just finished performing in an acting class at nearby South Coast Repertory and were meeting Jordan's family at the annual event, which attracts about 2,500 participants each year.
Hundreds of participants, many of which were families, began pouring into the courtyard at Town Center Park as early as 5 p.m., where a stage and folding chairs were set up for the evening's performance.
"This lets families come together and have fun," said Santa Ana resident Jose Isles. "It's really nice — it feels like Christmas already."
Isles attended the event with family members, including daughter Michelle Isles, who admired the tree "because it's really big and cool."
The tree arrived in Town Center Park on Oct. 21 after an 11-hour drive down from Mt. Shasta. A crane was required to hoist the 14,000-pound tree into position in the courtyard that faces the Westin South Coast Plaza hotel.
Shortly after 7 p.m., the tree's 20,000 lights were illuminated, signaling the beginning of the holiday season.
"Based on our performance throughout 2011, we're anticipating a very good holiday shopping season," said Debra Gunn Downing, executive director of marketing for the shopping center.
Items such as jewelry, home décor, women's boots and electronics are among the most popular holiday purchases right now, she said.
Those present for the tree lighting were provided hot cups of apple cider and faux fur "Santa" hats, creating a mass of red throughout the courtyard.
A boy about six years old, wearing a red hat, ran at full speed past the still-dark tree while shouting "this is the best Christmas ever!"