Lifted by balmy winter weather and undaunted by iffy economic news, shoppers kept Ashland's cash registers jingling and flocked to the Plaza for the annual spectacle of Santa switching on a million lights.

Lifted by balmy winter weather and undaunted by iffy economic news, shoppers kept Ashland's cash registers jingling and flocked to the Plaza for the annual spectacle of Santa switching on a million lights.

In what appeared to be a record crowd for the Festival of Light, thousands jammed the blocked-off streets downtown to watch the parade of local high school bands, theater troupes, bagpipers and shelter dogs — then Santa and Mrs. Claus, loudly cheered before triggering the town's blanketing lighting display.

"This is the start of it all, when those lights are lit — the family, parties and fun. I love Christmas and the kids love all the lights," said Jeff McNeil of Ashland.

It's also the start of the holiday shopping season. Will he spend as much this year? "Yes, I think so. And I let my wife take care of all the shopping."

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving when many stores finally go in the black, can be a time of nail biting as retailers check the tape, especially in an economy worried about the subprime crash, the weakened dollar and slipping home prices, but veteran retailers didn't bat an eye.

"It's great weather and really crowded, not my best day of the year. And no, I'm not scared (about the economy)," said Ken Silverman, owner of Nimbus. "I've been in this business too long to worry about that. I like a stress-free Christmas."

Shoppers made many a nod to quality time and the giving of love, not things, but retailers said everyone "goes nuts" the last two weeks before Christmas, and fills store aisles.

Roger Pepin of Jacksonville said he'd be "a little bit more conservative than last year" and spend less on presents. And, he said, "more of the focus will be on quality over quantity — the quality of the time with people."

Pam Hammond, owner of Paddington Station, observed, "Traffic is steady, people are cheerful and shopping. It's all going. There'll always be a Christmas, and smart retailers have a good feeling about what consumers want and they have it in stock."

"Online shopping? I'm not scared of online shopping," Hammond said. "My stock is very touch-feely and people like to come here for it."

Two sets of sisters, all cousins, took to dancing in the middle of Main Street. One, Holly Driscoll, said the festival "makes us extra merry."

As for shopping, she said, "I'm always ready to shop!"

Kristi Allmen and friend Renee O'Brien, visiting from California, both said they'd sworn off harried Christmas shopping, not because of the economy, but because they want simple lives free of credit card debt.

"I'm not spending money. I give presents to the people I love all year and I'm not into debt. Spending time with people and caring about them has the same effect as giving them things they end up putting in their garage and regifting next year," said O'Brien.

"I do a lot of it online. It's easy. You don't have to go from store to store," said Allmen.

Marianne O'Sheeran of Medford said her idea of gift giving is making biscotti and candles for loved ones. "I'm not buying into fear about the economy. It just keeps going up and down."

Protests of nonmaterialism aside, Hal Koerner, owner of Rogue Valley Runner, said he sees buying being strong this season. It was scary the week after the Oregon Shakespeare Festival closed in late October, he said, but then came a couple of $5,000 days and now he's 25 percent over last year.

"The big increase comes after the Festival of Light and goes to the day before Christmas," Koerner said.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.