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Christmas spirit arrives
As Paris Costa, 7, of Ceres, grinned over her letter to Santa Claus, hundreds of others were getting into the holiday spirit at the annual Ceres Christmas Festival held Saturday evening.

For many getting into the Christmas swing of things meant watching a host of community youth groups performed to holiday tunes under the Smyrna Park shelter. To others it was getting in a photo opp with Santa and Mrs. Claus. To others, sipping on hot cocoa and conversing with neighbors. But all felt pure Christmas as they strolled the dazzling display of Christmas lights and decorations on Christmas Tree Lane.

The event was the official kickoff for the opening of Ceres' greatest holiday tradition. Residents of Henry and Vaughn streets have been going all out with Christmas decorations since 1961. On Saturday the streets were closed down to vehicular traffic for unimpeded pedestrian strolls down the lane.

Many homeowners laughed and chatted around small warming fires as horse-drawn wagon rides moved down the lane to the sound of clopping hooves.

At Smyrna Park, a long line of parents holding children or pushing strollers formed for the first tent where Santa and Mrs. Claus posed for photos. The couple (which resembled Del and Shirley Davis), was often amused by the youngsters who were at times eager and at times petrified to sit in the lap of the famous bearded man from the North Pole. An estimated 200 children got to pose with Santa and Mrs. Claus. The city charged $2 per Polaroid photo, or waived the cost in exchange for a can of food. Other parents opted to take their own photos with digital cameras.

Recreation coordinator Cambria Pollinger estimated that there were at least 1,000 in attendance.

"I think it was one of our better events," said Pollinger. "We're trying to make things better every year."

The Polar Post Office tent provided kids a chance to write letters to Santa Claus. Approximately 250 letters were collected during the evening festival.

The third booth was dubbed "Santa's Workshop," giving children a chance to have their face painted as well as finish a number of holiday crafts, courtesy of the city.

Assisting the city with the event were members of the Ceres Senior Citizens Club who handed out refreshments to the crowd; and the Ceres Youth Commission which manned the activities booths and took photos of children with Santa.

Community Christmas spirit also was displayed Friday at the lighting of the Christmas Tree in the Whitmore Park gazebo. Entertainment was provided by the Ceres High School Jazz Band.

Journey to Bethlehem

The celebrated "Journey to Bethlehem" continues into its last week at Grace Community Christian Church, 3754 Service Road. The event is repeated Friday and Saturday evenings this week and Dec. 10, 11 and 12. Gates open week nights at 7 p.m. and close at 9 p.m. while the Saturday gates open at 6 p.m. and close at 9 p.m.

Offered since 1997, Journey seeks to recreate the experience of the pilgrimage made by Mary and Joseph in the biblical account of the birth of Jesus, the Christ child. Mary and Joseph were forced to travel to Bethlehem to participate in the census conducted by Roman officials. In those days, people had to trek to their towns of origin. At the time, Mary was pregnant with Jesus, whom would be born in a manger in Bethlehem. In Ceres, a guide takes small groups through the interactive stations, which are intended to be as realistic as possible.

Pastor Wayne Unger and his wife Sue began the event a decade ago, modeling the event after one started by his home pastor in St. Charles, Mo.

Because it's not uncommon for crowds of 1,300 to show up in a single night, participants are urged to come early to reduce the wait and come bundled in blankets because the experience is all outdoors in chilly temperatures.

Limited parking is available at the church site at 3754 E. Service Road, but free parking and shuttle service is available at Orchard Park Shopping Center at the corner of Mitchell and Don Pedro roads. For more information, call 531-1902.