Though the evening drew to a close with a live rendition of “Silent Night,” Monday evening in downtown Hinesville was anything but silent.
Hundreds of families gathered around Bradwell Park for the fifth annual Christmas in the Park, hosted by the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and Fort Stewart Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation.
“The energy is great — I love it,” said Gale Dent, vice president of the Hi-Fidelity Civic Club. “This is like something you see on TV, only it’s real. This is small-town America at its finest.
“The people are happy, and they’re joyful and peaceful, and I think they’re enjoying themselves,” she said while handing out cups of warm cider.
Dent’s club was one of many civic organizations and community businesses that gave away seasonal treats like hot chocolate and warm apple cider during the event.
The Heritage Bank handed out blue Santa Claus hats that children decorated, and Keep Liberty Beautiful had a station where children could decorate — then indulge in — festive sugar cookies.
Event committee chairwoman Susan Poole McCorkle said she was thrilled with the turnout but that the crowd was too large to estimate.
“They’ve been coming since about quarter ’til 5, and the event didn’t even start until 5:30,” she said. “Even at 5 o’clock we had a couple hundred then — it’s already bigger than it was last time.”
Chamber Executive Director Leah Poole added that many volunteers and sponsors donated their time to make the event a success.
Christmas in the Park also featured song and dance performances from groups such as Cheryl Brett Dance Studio, the Live Oak Church choir, the Mt. Zion Memorial Chapel Mime Ministry and more. Both modern and traditional jigs and jingles made the crowd merry.
Sarah and Joseph McDonald, who brought their children, Joseph Jr., 7, and Samantha, 1, came to the event to spend time together and to let the children visit with Santa, they said.
“The scenery feels really good, it feels all Christmasy — it feels like Christmas,” Sarah McDonald said.
Fort Stewart resident Christine Stoner brought her 2-year-old son, Chrishon Wright, so he could visit Santa for the first time.
“He’s never sat on Santa’s lap before. He was so excited about it,” Stoner said. “He ran over here like, ‘Mommy, here comes Santa Claus!’”
While he entertained children’s wish-list requests, Santa parked his sleigh and two reindeer a short distance away so attendees could check out his legendary ride.
As they waited in line to take pictures with the reindeer, Kay Morales and her three children, Nigel, 9, Alivia, 6, and Myla, 2, shared their thoughts on seeing the animals in person.
“They kind of look like caribou,” Nigel said.
“It looks like they’re about to fly!” Alivia interjected.
Morales said she tries to attend all of the events downtown, but that this one seemed especially fun for all of its family-friendly offerings.
Toward the end of the event, the crowd gathered near the stage provided by FMWR to listen to remarks from Chamber Chairman Kevin Thomas, Col. Roger Cloutier, County Commission Chairman John McIver, Hinesville Downtown Development Authority Chairman Donald Lovette and Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas.
In their speeches, each gave thanks for the community and for the fact that most of the 3rd Infantry Division service members are home this holiday season. Then they left the stage and gathered around a switch to light the community Christmas tree in Bradwell Park.
After a countdown from 10, blue lights on the tree twinkled to life, and the Snelson-Golden Middle School chorus led the crowd in “Silent Night.”
At the end of the event, Lovette and Thomas both reflected on the night’s success and said it drew the largest crowd they ever have seen downtown.
“I’ve had a ball this evening,” Lovette said. “The electricity in the air — it is Christmas in Hinesville! We set the standard.”