It was a vision of Christmas past and Christmas future in the city of Boston.
Mayor Thomas M. Menino, long the master of municipal yuletide celebrations, had taken his appointed position, right in front of Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus.
Then Menino summoned the city’s budding apprentice in matters of Christmas pageantry, Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh, to the stage at Copley Square.
Walsh planted himself behind Menino and observed carefully as the mayor, operating with the ease that comes only from lighting hundreds of Christmas trees, warmed up the crowd with a few jokes, and then, with the flick of a switch, lit the tree in a cascade of red, blue, and yellow lights.
As Walsh prepares to take over at City Hall, he has spent the last few weeks attending many of these holiday celebrations with Menino, rare joint appearances that allow Walsh to study, up close and in person, the fine art of leading cocoa-sipping citizens in carols and countdowns.
The task may not entail the exchange of thick policy briefing books or sage political advice, but it goes to the heart of what it means to take the reins of power from a mayor who has made neighborhood celebrations a hallmark of his legacy.
Looming large in that legacy is Menino’s unflagging devotion to illuminating pines, spruces, and firs, from West Roxbury to East Boston.
Walsh and Menino have not been natural allies — some would call that an understatement — and the tree lightings are not always sparkling displays of good tidings and cheer between the two.
Walsh invariably plays the number two role, standing behind Menino, who remains fully in charge, clutching the microphone and leading the countdown at even the humblest of Christmas celebrations.
At the Boston Common tree lighting Thursday, Walsh sat in the audience, just another face among the thousands, and then left early, before Menino took the stage for his triumphant final appearance at the city’s biggest Christmas celebration of the season. Walsh aides said the mayor-elect had two awards ceremonies he had to visit elsewhere in the city that night.
Angela Menino, the mayor’s wife, has said he considers it “the very best part of his job.”
This year, of course, is different. Menino is indulging his final turn as the city’s reveler-in-chief. Walsh is gingerly edging into the role. Striking a deferential tone, he said he only shows up at tree lightings after receiving a formal invitation from Menino.
“It’s the first real, official duty of the transition, the tree lightings,” Walsh said after watching Menino light the tree in Copley Square Monday night.
To be sure, Walsh is no tree-lighting novice. He has lit his fair share in Dorchester, during his 17 years representing the neighborhood in the Massachusetts House. Yet he paid due homage to the mayor’s unrelenting devotion to illuminated evergreens.
“He keeps a very aggressive schedule and lights just about every single tree in the city of Boston,” Walsh said. “I think trees that aren’t even holiday trees or Christmas trees, he’s lighting them as well.”
Walsh said he wants to uphold the tradition. But he left himself a little wiggle room to cut back a bit next Christmas.
“The mayor has certainly set the bar high,” he said. “I may not be able to do every single event, but the tree lightings are important.”
Menino said he is happy to have Walsh accompany him. But asked if he is ready to hand over the big, brightly colored switch that he uses to light trees all across the city, Menino balked.
“Oh, yeah, sure,” he said. “After Dec. 25.”