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Lights dazzle crowd
Rain may have kept some away but for the estimated 700 persons who turned out for the annual Ceres Christmas Festival, holiday spirit was glowing red hot.

The city-hosted festival in Smyrna Park served as a joyous prelude to the opening of Christmas Tree Lane - a Ceres tradition since 1961 - at nearby Henry Avenue and Vaughn Street.

"Our numbers were not as high as they normally would be but our numbers were still good," said Traci Farris of the city's Parks and Recreation Department. "People were still willing to brave the weather. A lot of people were participating."

Most of the festivities were under the picnic shelter and in large tents. About 100 children penned letters to Santa Claus in the Polar Post Office tent and approximately 70 area youngsters awaited a turn to chat with St. Nicholas in a neighboring tent. Another booth, dubbed "Santa's Workshop," gave children a chance to have their face painted as well as complete holiday crafts, courtesy of the city despite an event budget half of what it was last year.

Under shelter, hundreds watched local groups offer holiday dance routine and martial arts demonstrations. Students from both Mae Hensley and Blaker Kinser junior high schools, and Ceres and Central Valley high schools performed as did those from Footnotes and Steps dance studios and Edwards Black Belt Academy.

Many festival goers enjoyed visiting with friends and neighbors while sipping hot cocoa.

Assisting the city with the event were members of the Ceres Senior Citizens Club who handed out refreshments; and approximately 20 members of the Ceres Youth Commission who ran the tent activities.

At the festival conclusion, rains increased to put the kibosh on the ribbon cutting of Christmas Tree Lane but many decided to stay in line for the horse-drawn wagon ride down the lane. Neighbors along the lane also did their best to keep their warming fires burning despite the rain. Henry and Vaughn were closed to vehicles during and after the festival to allow for unimpeded pedestrian strolls down the lane.

Journey to Bethlehem

The celebrated "Journey to Bethlehem" continues into its final week at Grace Community Christian Church, 3754 Service Road. The venue will be repeated nightly on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Dec. 9, 10, and 11. Gates open week nights at 4 p.m. with the "show" starting at 7 p.m. and gates close at 9 p.m. while the Saturday gates open at 4:30 p.m. and starts at 6 p.m. and closes at 9 p.m.

This is the 14th consecutive year Journey has been offered by the church.

Event organizer Pat Mason said the hours-long wait in years past have been reduced to no more than 45 minutes, as a rule. 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.

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. Mason said the market place, where the smells of cooking food and sounds of bartering customers and merchants are experienced, remains a popular aspect of Journey.