An uncharacteristically warm evening was the backdrop for the holiday cheer that was abundant in merry measure during Saturday's 27th annual Ceres Christmas Festival in Smyrna Park. Thousands of persons flocked to the park for local entertainment, crafts, hot cocoa and cookies and pictures with Santa and Mrs. Claus.
The festival preceded the 53rd opening of Christmas Tree Lane at nearby Henry Avenue and Vaughn Street.
The city Recreation Department put on the festival which featured the Polar Paint Shop where faces were painted; Rudolph's Sweet Shop where members of the Ceres Senior Citizens Club handed out cookies and hot chocolate; Santa's Workshop where craft projects were offered; and Frosty's Photo Shop where Santa and Mrs. Claus visited with children while posing for photos.
"It's a lot of fun," said Beth Green, who was busy handing out cups of hot chocolate through a service window of the Rudolph's Sweet Shop tent. "I like to see all these little kids - big ones too."
In the next tent over, Angela Mendoza was busy painting Santa like facial hair and rosy cheeks on the face of nine-year-old Jesus Gomez, a Tuolumne Elementary School student.
Under the Smyrna Park picnic shelter a number of local groups and schools performed dances or played music for the crowd which turned out for Christmas cheer.
At the festival's conclusion, the ribbon was cut to Christmas Tree Lane but many stayed in line for the horse-drawn wagon ride down the lane. Neighbors along the lane chatted and ate food around warming fires. Henry and Vaughn were closed to vehicles during and after the festival to allow for unimpeded pedestrian strolls down the lane.
"It was a tremendous event," said Mayor Chris Vierra. "I would hesitate to guess how at many thousands of people were probably in attendance at that event. I think it's something that continues to grow every year."
Councilman Ken Lane, who played Santa Claus as wife Yvette played Mrs. Claus, said he thought it was the biggest festival ever.
"We heard some great stories from kids and moms and dads," said Lane. "For us it was a real special time."
Although the tradition of lights and yard displays that has become known as a Ceres tradition dates back to December 1961, this is Bob Abbott's second year experiencing Christmas Tree Lane at his Henry Avenue house. He said he was excited about being a part of the experience because "this was our family tradition to come here every year."
"It's a new family tradition for us," said Abbott.
Maryann Benge was by a warming fire in the driveway of her daughter and son-in-law's home, taking over the decorating duties since they moved to Oregon.
"I brought my children when it started back in '61," said Benge. "I brought my children every year. It's really a beautiful thing to see. Everybody just enjoys coming out and seeing Christmas Tree Lane."
She reminisced on past experiences on the lane, including how the late Steve and Goldie Peeden would dress up as Santa and Mrs. Claus to greet children on opening night. The Peedens were Maryann's inlaws. The house was known for years as the house with the airplane on the roof with Santa behind the controls.
Benge said the worst part of the Christmas Tree Lane experience is feeling the deadline pressure of getting the house ready every year.
"It's not so easy to get up on the ladders or anything anymore," said Benge. "He wanted to do the snowman in the yard this year and we didn't get to get that done."
Many people are under the false impression that homeowners on Christmas Tree Lane get some kind of break on their electricity from the city, Benge said.
"They give no such thing."
Someone walked up to the painting on the garage door behind her - of Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus - and complimented it as a "beautiful painting." The portrait was hung with a sign that read: "Happy Birthday."
There's a neighborhood expectation that anyone who lives on the two streets will participate every holiday season. Five-year Lane resident Jesse Alvarez felt the pressure to decorate his Vaughn Street yard but wasn't able to because of a trip to Hawaii with fiancé Stephanie Schmaltz. What he did instead, with the help of friend Taylor Eilers, was create a sign that reads "Ditto" with arrows pointed at both next-door neighbors.
"We literally had like one day to decorate," said Alvarez, "and it's like, do we pull out all the lights? Do we have the time? Or do we show that we agree with the decorations? I think it's a pretty powerful statement."
The spirit of the lane continues to spread around the block with residents on adjoining Caswell Avenue increasing their light display each year.