ROCKLAND, Maine — When Santa Claus stepped off the Rockland Trolley Saturday for the lighting of the city’s Christmas tree, he threw his arms open wide.
“I have 1,000 hugs to give,” he bellowed to the crowd of several hundred, according to Lorain Francis, organizer of the annual Rockland Festival of Lights.
With that, dozens of children swarmed the man in red, who true to his word, offered the hugs to anyone who wanted one.
“I’ve been working on this festival since September,” said Francis, who is executive director of Rockland Main Street Inc., the organization behind the Festival of Lights. “When you see moments like that, where the kids get so excited, that’s what makes it all worth it.”
Though it’s not yet December, the city of Rockland heralded the Christmas season with three days of events, beginning at noon Friday when Santa and Mrs. Claus arrived at the city dock aboard a Coast Guard cutter. A gingerbread house contest among Main Street businesses, a special display at the Farnsworth Art Museum, a heavily attended parade and the traditional lighting of the city’s “Christmas tree” — fashioned with lobster traps and buoys — were just a few of the ways the holiday season took hold.
Revelers overflowed the sidewalks for Saturday night’s parade, which featured floats and displays from dozens of area organizations. The crowd favorite — as judged from a food drive vote that gathered a pickup truck load of food for area pantries — was a tractor-trailer towing a Charlie Brown-theme creation ridden by more than 50 area Cub Scouts.
As with most celebrations of this type, the focus was on the kids, and much of the kids’ focus was on Santa and Mrs. Claus’ repeated appearances. According to Duo Noel — who are closely related to Barrett and Linda “Claus” Winstead of Rockland — the number of children who have communicated Christmas wishes to them this year was an all-time high for the festival.
“We’ve never seen such a turnout,” said Mrs. Claus.
While most asked for a desperately sought-after toy — the Nintendo DS gaming system topped the list, said Santa — some surprised with something more pure.
“Yesterday, a child told me ‘I don’t want anything,’” said Santa. “He said ‘I just want everyone to be happy.”
In some cases, prompting the children to say anything when they sit on the lap of the boisterous Santa is the biggest challenge of all. That’s part of the reason Mrs. Claus sits by his side.
“Sometimes a gentler voice works better for some kids,” said Mrs. Claus. “I can put them on my lap and kind of aim them toward Santa.”
Four-year-old Zachary Gilbert of Rockland, who sat with the Clauses during a pancake breakfast Sunday morning at the Tradewinds Red Jacket Restaurant, required encouragement at first. Then his mother, Terri Sukeforth, reminded him that he wants G.I. Joe action figures.
“And Spidey and Batman!” said Gilbert, suddenly not shy at all.
Santa and Mrs. Claus said their job is far from done. They will be stationed at their workshop at the corner of Main and Park streets from noon to 3 p.m. Dec. 4, 11 and 18. In conjunction with Santa’s Workshop, free horse-drawn carriage rides will be offered on those days from noon to 4 p.m.