Originally Published: February 14, 2016 6 a.m.
PRESCOTT - On Prescott's biggest night of the year, a local couple decided to conduct the biggest event of their relationship.
The result: Wedding vows exchanged amidst 600,000 sparkling Christmas lights after the Dec. 5, 2015 Courthouse Lighting ceremony, with thousands looking on.
Romantic, yes. But for Jenn Winters and Tom Ashcraft, the vows, the venue, and the guests all meant so much more.
Both recovering from tragedies, the two say the wedding was their way of including the community in their joyful day - a gesture that they say has helped with the healing process.
"This town really held our pieces together," said Winters (now Winters-Ashcraft). "This was a way of giving back to a wonderful community that I love so much."
In fact, Winters and Ashcraft say their relationship was born of common tragedy.
When 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots died fighting the Yarnell Hill wildfire in June 2013, Ashcraft's son Andrew was among the fallen firefighters.
Winters, who had experienced her own tragedy years before when she watched New York City's World Trade Center collapse in the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, had channeled her trauma and grief into helping others. For 15 years, she had volunteered with the American Red Cross.
So, it happened that when Red Cross workers were helping grief-stricken family members of the fallen 19 to get to Prescott for the memorial service in July 2013, Winters was on hand to help.
That planted the seed, but Winters and Ashcraft say it wasn't until more than two years later, when the two connected again in November 2015, that a real bond was forged between them.
In what was a whirlwind romance, the two dated briefly in November, and then on Thanksgiving Day, Ashcraft proposed, and Winters accepted.
That led to the usual wedding logistics: When, where, how many guests, what to wear?
Even though the Courthouse Lighting was coming up the next weekend, the couple decided that it was the right time and place.
"It is one of the most beautiful times in town," Winters said of her suggestion that the wedding take place at the annual Christmas event.
Added Ashcraft: "Because Prescott is Arizona's Christmas City, what better way than to spend (the wedding) with 5,000 people at the Courthouse Lighting?"
Decision made, they spent the next few days wrangling the details. Things seemed to fall into place naturally, they said.
"Door after door just kept opening," Ashcraft says.
First up was contacting the Prescott Chamber of Commerce to see if a wedding was possible at the Courthouse Lighting.
Prescott Chamber CEO David Maurer said the request was a first for the organization, but he pointed out that the courthouse plaza is a public venue and available for such events.
"(The wedding) was a unique event, and they were willing to adapt their plans to the schedule of the activities," Maurer said.
The couple were required to get a one-day liability-insurance policy, and were told that the wedding could take place after the end of the lighting festivities.
Although Winters and Ashcraft officially invited about 200 friends and family members to attend, they estimate that 5,000 people ended up watching the vows. And this was just how they wanted it.
Now, two months later, the couple speak in glowing terms of the vows they exchanged on the steps of the Yavapai County Courthouse, flanked by about a dozen of their closest friends and family.
"There is no rehearsal for a courthouse-step wedding," Ashcraft said. Still, he said, "We just knew, like we knew the sun would rise."
At the end of the time-honored Courthouse Lighting, Maurer announced that a wedding would be taking place after the ceremony, and many of the people in attendance naturally stayed on to watch.
"They do the lighting, and everybody's happy," Ashcraft recalled. "All of a sudden, the crowd turned around."
In an emotional conclusion, the couple released 19 white balloons into the air, in honor of the fallen 19.
For Ashcraft, the fast-paced romance and wedding were an extension of his belief that "life is precious; every single day is important."
The wedding - and, indeed, the relationship - has been a stroke of good fortune for the couple in more ways than one.
"What I love about Tom is he is a really good man, and he doesn't take anything for granted," Winters said. "I am so glad I waited for a soul mate."
Ashcraft says having Winters has helped them both to deal with their losses. "Healing couples heal better," he said.
And both emphasize the importance of the support from the community.
"With regards to healing, the city, state, and country supported us through the horrendous pain," Ashcraft said. "We wanted to say thanks. So much has been given; it's nice to show gratitude."
Although Ashcraft says he is "still very much in the healing process," he recently has felt "a fog lifting" from his life.
For much of the past two and a half years, Ashcraft said, "I thought, 'how am I going to wake up, live - let alone find happiness?'"
But now, he says, "There is joy after tragedy."
Added Winters: "He's not alone now."
Of all of the help and positive response the couple received from the community before and during the wedding, Winters says simply: "Our town came through for us again."
Follow Cindy Barks on Twitter @Cindy_Barks. Reach her at 928-445-3333, ext. 2034, or 928-642-0951.