Families began gathering around Bradwell Park at 5 p.m. Monday, making for an early start to this year’s Christmas in the Park festivities, hosted by the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce.
At that hour, many of the vendor tents still were being set up, but that didn’t stop eager youngsters from seeking out the night’s guest of honor, Santa Claus. The Scott family stopped Kris Kringle for a photo near the Christmas tree that was ceremoniously lit a couple hours later.
Julian, 9; Lamia, 8; Austin, 5; and Destiny, 7 surrounded Santa, played by Bob Clem, for a group picture, saying they all couldn’t fit in the gazebo where Santa eventually sat and met with other children. Natasha Berry, 5, was one of those children who later posed with her mom, Annie, in the gazebo with Santa.
Attendees also enjoyed a petting zoo. Sue Lynn Taylor and her daughter Marandon of Three Oaks Farm near Brunswick brought an array of baby animals that children were encouraged to pet and feed with provided pet food.
“We brought out today some of our babies,” Taylor said. “We have our miniature donkey, a goat, a sheep, our miniature horse, our llama and some rabbits. We’ve got a petting zoo at our farm. We do beach trail rides, and we also do carriage rides.”
Some of the kids were hesitant about petting the animals. Wanda Ryons coaxed her granddaughter, Alexis Kirby, 3, to feed the miniature horse. The toddler giggled as the pony ate food pellets from her hands.
A line of children gathering near the llama, most not sure what they were looking at and afraid to feed it. The animal, however, seemed quite content to be fed by little hands and wasn’t the least bit frightened by the crowd around it.
Except for two nonprofit food vendors, every tent offered free snacks and activities for the kids. Some made Christmas ornaments, others holiday cards. For participating in the craft-making, they were given hot chocolate, egg nog, cookies and candy.
“Here, the young people are making a card,” said Jennifer Smith, fundraising chairwoman for the Relay for Life of Liberty County. “They can either take the card home with them and color it for themselves, or they can they can do it here for a (soldier), then some of the students are going to send them overseas. When they’re all done, they’ll bring me their card — their creation — and they get a nice treat.”
Parents and older festival-goers appeared to favor a tent run by South Georgia Bank, where free boiled peanuts were handed out.
At the opposite end of Commerce Street, Gum Branch Baptist Church ran train for kids behind the historic courthouse and annex. Children of all ages squealed with delight as they waited their turn to board.
Fort Stewart’s Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation tent on West Court Street featured children’s choirs and dance performances. Parents and spectators were treated to hot chocolate at a stand manned by Vietnam Veterans of America, Chapter 789 volunteers.
“This is our eighth annual Christmas in the Park,” said Susan McCorkle, out-going chairwoman for the Liberty County Chamber of Commerce. “This year, we have a petting zoo. That’s new … Our reindeer were not able to make it this year. We’ve got train rides for the kids and lots of entertainment. They can make cookies, color, make ornaments — anything for children to do is here.
Everything out here is free for the children, except two nonprofit food vendors. There is no charge for the booths. They just have to register. The Chamber gets nothing out of it. We hold the event for the children.”
Chamber CEO Leah Poole said they could not do the event without the help of sponsors like South Georgia Bank, McDonald’s, Tattersall Village, Savannah Technical College, Liberty Chrysler, the Hinesville Downtown Development Authority, Walmart, The Heritage Bank and GeoVista. For a full list of sponsors, she recommended visiting the chamber’s website or Facebook page.
Around 8 p.m., the crowd circled around the big evergreen for the official tree lighting. Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas flipped the switch as everyone cheered and sang, officially welcoming the start of the Christmas season.
The next holiday event will be at 6:30 p.m. Friday with the Illuminated Christmas Parade in downtown Hinesville.