Annual downtown tree lighting, Santa arrival, just a week away

By on November 20, 2019

Since 1923, the glow of a community Christmas tree has bathed the downtown in holiday cheer, first in front of the Ephrata National Bank, then by the train station parking lot, then back again to the bank.

On Black Friday, Nov. 29, that glow will be ignited for the 96th time as the Downtown Christmas Tree Lighting and Santa’s Arrival kicks off the holiday season here.

“We love the history. we love the tradition,” said Cindy Mellinger, who sits on the Christmas Committee for Mainspring, which hosts the event.

Starting at 5:30 p.m., the evening will see a wonderland of fun and activities for “kids” of all ages — from toddlers to seniors — culminating with a dazzling laser light show, choreographed with music from the Lancaster-based Big Boy Brass Band.

The Big Boy Brass Band provides the perfect music for Ephrata’s Tree Lighting and Santa Arrival event. They will return again this year, along with the laser show that can be seen in the top left of photo. Photo by Missi Mortimer.

Main Street, from Lake to State, will be closed to traffic starting at 3 p.m. to allow set up for the stage in front of Ephrata National Bank, and other vendors.Additional food options this year
Food, in fact, will be more plentiful this year than last.

“We have a lot more food vendors this year because the lines were so long,” said Linda Martin, a borough council and Mainspring chair of the Community and Events Committee. “We’ve also reached out to the brick and mortar stores downtown to bring out their goods and showcase their wares.”

In addition, free cookies and warm cider will be available at the Welcome Tent in front of Hometown Refurnishing.

The centerpiece of the festivities, the community tree, is always donated by a resident living in the borough. This year’s tree comes from well-known local attorney and former Ephrata Borough Council President Tony Kilkuskie.

The man of the hour made his appearance in front of Ephrata National Bank last year.

Kicking off the program will again be a concert by the Getz Steam Calliope. At 6:30, the crotchety old Belsnickle arrives mounted on Lincoln Volunteer Fire Company’s antique fire engine. Carrying a bag of treats for good children and a switch for the naughty ones, this Old German Christmas icon will step from the past to mingle with the crowd.
Other activities include barrel train rides, jugglers and other street acts, and horse-drawn wagon rides. Adding to the harmonious spirit of Christmas, singers from Ephrata Performing Arts will blend their voices to the holiday music.

Radio personalities on the mic

The evening’s fun will be emceed by I105 radio’s ever-popular personality Casey Allyn and her on-air partner Rich Creeger.

While waiting for Santa’s arrival, kids can find plenty to do at Toyland, otherwise known as Whistle Stop Plaza. Here they will find games — including a penguin fish fling — inflatable characters and other activities while hobnobbing with furry life-sized figures such as Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman, the Grinch and others. The kids can color stockings to either be hung on their family tree at home or on the community tree. They can also fill out a Christmas wish list to give to Santa.

“Toy Land gets jam-packed,” Mellinger said.

Around 7:15, the Belsnickle will bid everyone farewell until next year. His departure will be followed by the lighting of the tree.

What kids may not know, is that all the while Santa and Mrs. Claus have been trapped inside the Ephrata National Bank.

“The story is that Santa and Mrs. Claus came into town to get the Naughty and Nice Book out of the bank vault so they can check it twice,” Mellinger said. “They realize, once they get in, that uh oh, the bank’s closed and they’re locked inside.”

Sue Burkholder and her staff from Salon Art-Tiff once again decorated Whistle Stop Plaza for the holiday season.

Around 7:30, the First Couple of Christmas make their way to the roof and signal for help. They are rescued by the Pioneer Fire Company who unlock the doors, disarm the alarms and escort the couple outside. Santa and Mrs. Claus then make their way to his headquarters inside the train station, where the Jolly Old Elf starts taking Christmas wishes. Even though the event itself ends at 8 p.m., Santa’s lap will remain available until the last child visits.

As they wait to see Santa, children will be invited to sign the Naughty and Nice Book.

The ‘book,’ prizes and more

In fact there are two very thick Naughty and Nice books and both are actually kept in the bank vault. The “new” book is the one kids will sign. The original book, which is about 50 years old, had been deteriorating from hard use. Rebound, it’s now retired and is considered a “town treasure.” However, parents may look up their own signatures from Christmases gone by.

“It’s historical,” Martin said.

While visiting Santa kids can sign up to win one of several prizes being given away. These include two gift baskets, one with crafts and one with games, or one of several bicycles. Entry is free and will run until Dec. 21. The drawing will be Dec. 23 and winners will be notified. The prizes are courtesy of a grant from Walmart.

For moms with small children, Reformed Presbyterian Church will provide baby changing and nursing stations at its facility along Rose Alley behind the train station.
After the tree lighting ceremony, Santa’s visiting hours will be Saturday Nov. 30, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Hours for Thursdays and Fridays, Dec. 5-6, 12-13 and 19-20 are 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., and

Saturdays Dec. 7, 14 and 21 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Santa’s headquarters will not be open Dec. 1-4.

Event keeps growing

At the conclusion of the event, Main Street will reopen around 9:30 p.m.

And the wreaths were hung by the lightpoles with care….

Mellinger and Martin both say that the annual tree lighting has consistently grown over the years. In 2017, it was estimated that 10,000 people crowded the downtown to take part in the hoopla.

Last year’s even saw a drop to about 8,000 but that was attributed to a bitterly winter-like evening.

“It was so horribly cold,” Mellinger recalled.

Aside from that, the event’s numbers have swelled.

“Ten years ago we had maybe a hundred people gathered around the tree,” Mellinger said. “Now we have thousands.”

And those thousands come from across the county and even from out of state, all hoping to share in the joy.

“When you see the crowds and the look on the kids’ faces, and the awe, that’s what keeps us doing this,” Mellinger said.

How it happens

The tree lighting and arrival of Santa is free of charge, largely thanks to local sponsors and a legion of volunteers, the organizers say.

“We did very well with our sponsorships this year,” Mellinger said. “We have a number of very generous sponsors who help make this happen.”

Other sources of revenue include the Adopt-A-Wreath and Adopt-A-Tree programs. For $35 a wreath or $125 a tree, residents get their names placed on a tag attached to the item and the money is funneled back into the Christmas fund.

Something else new this year will be the Holiday Banners — where for $175, families could send a greeting card to the community in the form of a photo on a banner, attached to the poles downtown.

For information on these programs visit ephratachristmas.com.

Just as important to the program as funding are volunteers. The Christmas tree-lighting event requires at least 70 people to help it run smoothly, including about 20 in Toyland. Mainspring is always on the lookout for volunteers and those interested in being a part of this or any Mainspring program can stop by the train station any time of the year.

“People seem to take a lot of pride in this town, and they want to be a part of it and make a difference,” Mellinger said.

Community involvement has always been a key component to the annual event. Joanne Pike of Pike’s Paints got involved shortly after arriving in Ephrata in 1953. In those years, Santa set up his headquarters in a small wooden shack that belonged to the Ephrata Chamber of Commerce and was heated by a small pot-bellied stove.

“That was dangerous,” Pike said.

He was moved to the train station, then to the lobby of The Ephrata Review, followed by two years in the show window of a toy store that is now Hometown Refurnishings, and finally back to the train station.

From 1988 until her retirement a few years ago, Pike was in charge of decorating the town and preparing for Santa’s arrival.

“We always focused on the kids,” Pike said. “We would have a clown and different things at the railroad station because the line was so long with kids wanting to get in to see Santa, that we needed entertainment there. One time we even had reindeer and the kids could get their picture taken with them. There was something to keep the kids entertained while they were standing in line.”

For a few years Santa’s arrival was held the Saturday afternoon after Black Friday. Santa arrived on a Pioneer Fire Company engine, and large Macy’s Parade-style balloons shaped like cartoon characters were featured. Volunteers inflated the large helium-filled balloons the night before, but when they returned the next day, they had an unpleasant surprise.

“Some of them were down,” she said. “It was horrible. What a job. I don’t think anyone realized how big a job it was going to be. They were beautiful, but it was really a lot of work.”

Like back then, the committee takes great pride in the Christmas glow that surrounds Ephrata during the holiday season, beginning with the tree lighting.
“Our community is so beautiful,” Mellinger mused. “You come here that night and everything is lit up. It’s gorgeous.”

“It’s a lot of work,” Pike agreed. “But you know what? Most of us love Christmas. It’s fun and we always had good help.”

Larry Alexander is a correspondent for The Ephrata Review. 

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