The crowd whooped and hollered as Santa Ho Ho Hoed from Alex's balcony, flipping the switch that illuminated the Plaza in downtown Ashland during the 15th Annual Festival of Light Friday night.

Thousands of people turned out for the festivities that began in the afternoon, despite the wind and temperatures dipping into the low 40s.

About a dozen people broke out their cell phones to photograph the very chilly-looking barefoot hula dancers on the stage in the Plaza when they danced to Louie Armstrong's What a Wonderful Life. The 12 women were part of Hula O Kahawai, a local dance troupe whose name means "Hula of the Valley." Dennis and Connie Olson, who just moved to Ashland two months ago, showed up to listen to the Rogue Valley Peace Choir. "I think they sound lovely," said Connie. "What a great way to get into the holiday spirit."

Five-year-old Angel Valencia of Talent sat on her grandpa's shoulders waiting for the parade to begin. She wanted to see Santa, but had no desire to sit on his lap and tell him what she wanted for Christmas. "I get too embarrassed," she said.

Her grandpa, Dennis Glover of Ashland, says he comes to the festival every year. "We have three grandchildren, so we're destined to do this."

This is the second year Jean Roorda and her ten-year-old son, Judah, have attended the event. "This has such a small town feel to it. We love that we can come down here and see people we know. You definitely get in the Christmas mood at the festival, but it's also about peace, and I like that," said Roorda. The Grand Illumination is her favorite part of the festival.

"Everyone just gets so excited and it's so beautiful when the lights go on," she said. "I have to drive through downtown every night, and it's just nice to remember how happy everyone was at that one moment."

This is the eighth year Stacy Page, owner of Holiday Illumination, has put up the more than — million lights and decorations for the festival. He and his four employees have been working fulltime since the end of September to try and get everything ready. "The last day is just a mad scramble," said Page.

This season, the electricity used to power the festive lights was offset by Dagoba Organic Chocolate's sponsorship of Green Tags. The Ashland company purchased 167 Green Tags, equating to 50 percent of the total energy used by the lights. One Green Tag, or renewable energy certificate (REC), represents 1,000 kilowatt-hours of renewable energy generated for the electrical grid by a wind or solar-based renewable energy facility.

Mary Pat Parker, Director of Public Relations for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber needs to raise about $50,000 to put on the event, which keeps getting bigger every year. "Every year we try to do something new. This year we added winter fairies and Santa got eight reindeer to lead his sleigh in the parade. OK, they're not actually real reindeer. More like eight people dressed up like reindeer. But they are new." She estimates that between 12 and 15,000 have turned out for previous parades.

The day after Thanksgiving is the biggest shopping day of the year, but few people walking around the Plaza Friday carried shopping bags. Arty Bobb, manager of American Trails right on the plaza, said, "We had more people browsing here rather than buying. In Ashland, it's not just about shopping. During this festival, it's more about having fun."

The parade opened with about 20 bagpipe players and drummers in full Scottish Highlander wear, but virtually everything else was draped in lights &

kids, dogs and carolers. The crowd laughed, clapped and cheered as kids with lighted hula hoops and dancing Christmas trees paraded by.

Santa will be on hand for photos at his workshop housed in the OSF Black Swan Theater, 15 S. Pioneer Street, every Saturday until December 15. Mrs. Claus will tell stories and share cookies and cider each Sunday at the Ashland Springs Hotel until December 16.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226 or .