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Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony held amid protests, heavy police presence

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NEW YORK — Thousands celebrated in the heart of Manhattan as they watched the lighting of the 85-foot-tall Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center.

Kids, and kids at heart, on Wednesday night soaked in the season's sights, including 45,000 LED lights primed for the flick of a switch, and sounds including performances by Mariah Carey and Cyndi Lauper.

"I've always wanted to come," said Lianne Payne, 20, of Swansea, Wales. "I was, like, we have to come. In London, they've got big trees - but not quite this big."

Her boyfriend, Carwyn Richards, 21: "She dragged me here. I don't like standing around in a crowd," he said with a wry grin.

Patricia Donnelly, 70, came from Greenwich, Connecticut, to see the lighting for the first time in 20 years.

"It was very different then," she said, standing in a crowd squeezed into a police-barricaded pen. "There weren't so many barricades then, and you could see the whole tree. Tonight, we'll see only half the tree."

PHOTO: LeeAnn Rimes performs at the 82nd Annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
LeeAnn Rimes performs at the 82nd Annual Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2014, in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

She went at the last-minute urging of her "significant other," Joseph Matkovich, 74.

"This is a gift to us," he said, gazing at the 13-ton spruce.

The ceremony came just hours after a grand jury decided not to indict a police officer in a man's videotaped chokehold death. Mayor Bill de Blasio canceled his scheduled appearance to meet with elected officials and activists on Staten Island as citywide protests started to gather steam.

Police presence was heavy as hundreds of protesters stood behind rows of police barricades jamming the sidewalks on Fifth Avenue within sight of the holiday revelers. A block away on Sixth Avenue, police in riot gear faced off with protesters behind metal barricades.

But the annual tradition went on as planned.

The tree's former home was outside a century-old farmhouse in Danville, Pennsylvania.

"It's really cool to be here. It's such a beautiful night, and there's so many people here — the air is just alive — and I look at my magical tree," said swimming coach Rachel Drosdick-Sigafoos, 29, who donated the spruce with her husband, Dan Sigafoos, 39, a lab technician.

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