Thousands gather on the Plaza for Festival of Light

There was no shortage of holiday cheer surrounding Ashland's 21st annual Festival of Light celebration downtown, Friday.

Thousands of revelers broke into "Jingle Bells," as Santa and Mrs. Claus simultaneously flicked on most of more than a million lights lining Ashland's downtown business at 5:46 p.m.

The Grand Illumination concluded a celebration on the Ashland Plaza and Santa's Parade, which started at 5 p.m. in front of the public library and moseyed down East Main Street before the Mr. and Mrs. Claus dismounted their parade sleigh and took to the balcony of Alex's Plaza Restaurant and Bar for a countdown to the Grand Illumination.

Before beginning the 10-to-1 countdown, first Santa suggested counting down from 100, which drew a chorus of boos from the joyous crowd.

About 10,000 people flock to the downtown area for the parade and light extravaganza, said Katharine Flanagan, marketing director for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event.

"It's a magic moment. There is a lot of intricate planning that goes into it," Flanagan said. "It really felt nice downtown today. It was warm and there were lines out the doors. People were happy."

Linnie Pucci, who retired to Ashland about 10 years ago from Cincinnati, Ohio, was one of the happiest in attendance.

"It's cool and crisp and everybody is all bundled up. It's dark at 5 o'clock and it's so intimate with everyone down here at the same time. That's what I like," she said. "You know, I love this little town. People are friendly, it's safe. I love living here."

Monday, Pucci attended the Ashland Fire & Rescue-sponsored Thanksgiving dinner at the Ashland Senior Center, which included six turkeys, two hams, 50 pounds of potatoes, several pies and trimmings.

"It was lovely," she said. "They were all there serving us."

Friday, Black Friday that is, was the busiest day of the year for Paddington Station, and most retail business in Ashland and around the country.

"Thousands" of shoppers streamed into Paddington Station leading up to the parade, said owner Pam Hammond, who breathed a sigh of relief thinking about the beginning of the parade and her upcoming break in the flow customers.

"I think this season will end up being stronger than last year," said Hammond, noting that there are fewer days this year between Thanksgiving and Christmas that years past.

Hammond has owned and operated the store for 20 years, and it is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, she said.

Between Paddington Station and Paddington Jewel Box, across the street, she brings in 23 staff members for Black Friday, she said.

There was only one person 4-year-old Phoenix, of Ashland, wanted to talk to after the parade — Santa Claus, who was hearing gift wishes from children and posing for photographs at the Black Swan Theatre until 8 p.m.

"Bike," is all Phoenix would say.

Her grandmother, Sandy Royce, who has lived in Ashland for 28 years, said she is thankful to have grandchildren to take to the parade.

"Every year I came with my family for a long time and now I come because I have grandchildren. It's a happy time; everybody is in a cheerful mood," Royce said. "I just love to see all the kids running down the street behind Santa Clause."

And they were. At 5:20 p.m. in front of the Ashland Springs Hotel, a mob of waving children, some on their parents' shoulders, were walking closely behind the Claus sleigh at the tail end of the parade. In front of the sleigh were about 20 Ashland Danceworks dancers dressed like Santa, in red skirts, white shirts and red caps, busting choreographed moves to hip-hop versions of Christmas songs.

"I thought it was fun," said 10-year-old Kenndel Mazzella, who was making her way back to the car after the parade.

She did a little shopping on Black Friday, she said, having picked up a brand new feather ink pen.

Although she didn't get a chance to speak with Santa on Friday, for Christmas she would like "some old classic books," like "Alice in Wonderland," said Mazzella, who has been going to the Festival of Light for as long as she can remember, and plans to keep up the tradition.

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-776-4471 or email Follow him on Twitter @MTwriter_swhlr.

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