Monday night’s seventh annual Christmas in the Park was one of the largest ever, with hundreds of families filling Bradwell Park and the Commerce Street area to see Santa and his reindeer, ride a train or horse-drawn carriage and enjoy live entertainment.
Young couples and families with children mingled on the crowded streets while senior adults rested on park benches, enjoying cups of hot apple cider.
Long lines formed at children’s activity booths, where attendees tried their hands at cookie-decorating and making paper Christmas-tree ornaments.
The longest line, though, formed in front of Santa’s gazebo, where the jolly old soul offered friendly smiles and words of cheer to each little face who visited him. Josiah Burnett, 3, was hesitant at first to approach Santa, and he avoided eye contact with the white-bearded man in the red suit. Soon, though, he was sitting in Santa’s lap, grinning.
Josiah’s parents, Capt. Cory and Christian Burnett, said it was his first time meeting Santa.
Not far away, under the limbs of a moss-covered live oak, another long line of children waited eagerly for a chance to sit in a sleigh drawn by three reindeer.
Georgia Reindeer owner John Roper said reindeer are high-maintenance livestock, particularly in this region of the country. He said they require specially made feed and have to live in a climate-controlled barn. Reindeer don’t do well during Georgia’s summers, he said.
Because he’s asked the question a lot, he said his 18 reindeer are the normal size for reindeer, which many people confuse with caribou. The three reindeer he brought with him for Monday’s event were about the size of whitetail deer. He said he takes groups of reindeer from his farm in Rockmart, Ga., to Christmas events around the state every weekend leading up to Christmas day.
“I’ve raised horses,” said Roper, who coincidentally sports a thick white beard. “But I was always fascinated with reindeer, so I did some research on them. I’ve been raising them now for 18 years.”
It was evident a lot of work went into planning, organizing and setting up this year’s event. Much of that effort was led by the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and the Liberty County Convention and Visitors Bureau. Volunteers labored long hours, provided event schedules and helped with children’s rides.
“We’re with a group called ‘Young Adult Liberty,’” volunteer Kailah Bacon said. “Events like this are some of the ways we volunteer.”
Even before the first guests arrived, other volunteers logged hours decorating the park and especially the community tree, which this year included more than 3,000 lights and 100 ornaments.
VIP Office Furniture and Supply accounts-payable employee Jill Wilber, Uncommon Grounds co-owner Jenny Cole and several helpers worked eight hours Sunday getting the tree decorated and ready for Monday night’s event. Wilber said it was worth it.
“Standing around the tree last night when the lights came on and hearing the reaction of the crowd was extremely gratifying,” she said. “Our goal is to make the tree a major draw for the people of Hinesville to come out and enjoy themselves as a community.”
Hinesville Area Arts Council member Bruce Muncher was among the first to suggest this year’s Christmas in the Park was one of the largest ever. He attributed the turnout to the fact that most to the 3rd Infantry Division is home. The clear, cool evening didn’t hurt, either.
“We were very pleased with the turnout. Not only were there a ton of people out enjoying this start to the holiday season, we honestly believe that more people stayed to see the community Christmas-tree lighting and participate in ‘Silent Night,’” Liberty County Chamber of Commerce and CVB CEO Leah Poole said. “It was a great night with a lot of great folks out offering free experiences for families to enjoy.”
Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas shared Poole’s sentiment.
“Based on my personal observation, I believe that this was our largest crowd since I have been in office,” he said.
It was Thomas who flipped the switch that illuminated the community tree, officially starting the Christmas season in Hinesville.