Santa makes his way through downtown Ashland during the Festival of Light Parade. [Mail Tribune / File Photo]

A quarter century of holiday cheer

Ashland's much-beloved Festival of Light — the celebration where Santa and his wife ride a sleigh down the city's main drag and then ascend to the Brickroom balcony, where they throw the switch on a million (literally) holiday lights — will celebrate its 25th anniversary on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving.

The holiday parade runs from the library to the Plaza, with elves, reindeer and the Rockettes, all played by people, of course, trailing behind Santa.

It’s a joyous event where delighted children sit on the laps of Santa and Mrs. Claus, disclose their wish lists (to eavesdropping parents), get their pictures taken, carols are sung and, on rare occasions, a few noses are nipped by Jack Frost.

Afterward, a large number of visitors flock to the town’s restaurants and shops to start whittling down their gift lists — finding toys and gifts not generally for sale within hundreds of miles.

"A lot of retailers get such increased business during the holidays that it can make up half their sales for the year,” says Dana Preston, membership and business development director for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the event.

Standing above the Plaza, Santa reminds everyone to stay on his “good list” for the whole year ahead, then, as "Jingle Bells" plays, the countdown commences. All voices slowly rise to a pitch in the final 10 seconds, then everyone explodes in oohs and ahhs, as the legendary million lights flash on, welcoming the joy, gifting and togetherness of the Yule season.

It’s quite a moment, and it couldn’t be created by the most expensive Hollywood producer, because it’s the real stuff of a little town, nestled in the snow-covered mountains in Southern Oregon.

"It’s a wonderful start to the holiday season,” Preston says, stating the obvious to thousands of Ashlanders who already know Ashland’s knack for putting on nostalgic, heart-warming holidays, including Independence Day and Halloween.

"It brings people together, and it’s part of why we love living here,” she adds. “We welcome people who want to see and experience the community. It’s such a special moment — absolutely magical.”

Carolers sing all day in the Plaza before the Grand Illumination, and the festivities continue for a month, with caroling groups of locals dropping into any store, tavern or coffee house, welcoming people to sing along.

Locals play a big role in the drama, as you would expect in a town known for an award-winning Shakespeare festival. The prancing, leg-kicking Rockettes are a local dance troupe and look for all the world like the Radio City entertainers, Preston says.

The Claus couple are well-known locals, but they’d rather not let their identity be known. It adds to the mystery. Could it be the actual Santa and wife from the North Pole? There’s a gleeful, childlike — but secret — spot in all of us that hopes so.

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