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Record numbers see Ashland Festival of Light

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Hungry for the holiday spirit in numbers never before seen, an apparent 25,000 yule revelers crammed Ashland’s main drag and Plaza for the now-epic Festival of Light, kicking off Black Friday and a spree of holiday shopping.

“I love to come down here and see the twinkle in everyone’s eyes,” said Julia Rezek. “I’ve been here 24 years and never miss it.”

Never mind below-freezing temperatures, Ashlanders and out-of-town visitors shouted for joy and shot videos of delightful dancing girls in Santa frills prancing among dazzling lights that lined the town’s unique shops, all boasting locally hand-crafted gifting items.

“It’s so inspiring for our community,” said Marina McDonald. “It’s a new era in time for the way we relate to and support each other. There’s something perfect about it that is teaching us to love each other.”

A couple from Redding said they’ve driven here five years in a row now, with Matthew Gallmeister noting, “It’s the best way to kick off the Christmas cheer after Thanksgiving and very worth the drive.”

Caitlin Maddigan, an Ashland High School grad, said, “It’s so nostalgic to be back here from Portland and seeing the old fun community.” Her partner, Simon Sharkey adds, “People are just in a better mood on the holidays, and it’s at the max here.”

Kids especially adored the spectacle of caroling and dancing, as Santa (actually City Council member Dennis Slattery) and Mrs Claus (Slattery’s wife, Ashland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Sandra Slattery), escorted by costumed reindeer, brought up the rear of the parade, then mounted the stairs to the Brickroom restaurant balcony for the big countdown to flipping on literally a million store lights.

“How many of you have been able to make it on the nice list?” implored Santa. A big roar ensued, then the jolly red one bellowed, “And how many have made the naughty list.” Multitudes screamed agreement, and as the lights came on, he encouraged all to sing along with “Jingle Bells.”

Not all was jolly and light, as one group of youngsters (apparently not on the approved list of paraders) toted a ragged Santa with big sign, “NEXT XMAS CANCELLED. ARTIC MELTING. SANTA HOMELESS,” displaying their protest on the wildly popular new Instagram page ashlandmemes.

Also participating were America's Best Kids dancers, Rogue River Vaulters, the Mt. Ashland Ski Area and a beautiful filmy snow maiden prancing in lovely lights.

Ashland, already the master of many festivals — Fourth of July, Pride Parade, Halloween — launched the Festival of Light in 1992 to pick up the flagging tourism season after Oregon the Shakespeare Festival went dark heading into the holidays.

In past years, attendees could walk freely around town, but this year they edged slowly — but joyously, step-by-step in the crowded Plaza area. After the lighting, Santa and Mrs. Claus made their way to the Black Swan Theater at Pioneer and Main streets for the tradition of kids telling Saint Nick their holiday wishes while they sat on his lap.

After that, crowds crammed restaurants and watering holes, helping local retailers joyfully experience the “black” (profit) of Black Friday.

The Holiday Gift Guide, published by the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, is now available and highlights shopping deals and events. Gift certificates are available at 40 shops. Carolers will roam shops and streets on Saturdays through the season.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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A crowd watches Ashland's annual Festival of Light Parade. Photo by Denise Baratta
Dennis and Sandra Slattery are Santa and Mrs. Clause Friday during Ashland's annual Festival of Light celebration. Photo by Denise Baratta
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Santa and Mrs. Claus, played by Dennis and Sandra Slattery, are the highlight of Ashland's Festival of Light parade. Photo by Denise Baratta
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