The faces of about 20,000 people were illuminated at the Festival of Light parade in downtown Ashland Friday night in a gathering that symbolizes, for many locals, the start of the holiday season.

Faces upturned, merrymakers watched as Santa and Mrs. Claus waved from a Plaza balcony and led the crowd in a countdown to the Grand Illumination, when more than 1 million lights burst through the darkness.

Earlier in the night, locals decked in costumes — including several dogs with antler headbands — paraded down Main Street as part of the 16th annual gathering, attended by as many as 20,000, according to Katharine Flanagan, marketing director for the Chamber of Commerce, which hosted the parade.

Eileen Cain was one of thousands bundled up to watch the Main Street procession, and although she was about as excited as many of the children, she was arguably one of the oldest in attendance.

First Festival

At 82, Cain is wheelchair-bound and hasn't been able to make it to past holiday parades, even though she has lived in Ashland for five years. This year, however, her daughter, Karen Cain-Smith, took the reins and drove down from Shady Cove with her daughter to take three generations to the gathering.

"Isn't that nice?" Cain asked. "I'm so lucky. I'm really excited to be able to come."

Cain was looking forward to seeing the star of the show, Santa, as well as the many lights decorating downtown.

"I just think it's fun that everybody can come together and share this experience," said Cain's 19-year-old granddaughter, Kierra Smith. "It's really fun to be able to do something like this with my Mom and Grandma."

Grandma was getting into the spirit, clapping along to holiday tunes played by the Ashland Middle School Band and clutching two candy canes she had just been given by marchers.

"It's great fun," Cain said, grinning.

Foreign Fun

This year's parade was the second for the Crockett family, which moved from London to Ashland two years ago.

"We never went to a Christmas parade in London!" said Christina Crockett, as she helped her two young daughters, Sibella and Honor, set up stools on the sidewalk, which they sat in to view the parade.

The Crockett's had high expectations, because last year "it was really good," said Sibella, 7, who is "turning 8 in April."

The girls, outfitted in matching snowflake sweaters and red dresses, were also excited to see the big man in red.

"We don't really get to see him that often because he lives in the North Pole and that's far away," said Sibella.

"First of all, I'm looking forward to Christmas because I like getting toys," Honor added.

Season Inspiration

Although she was a parade first-timer like Cain, Rebekah McAnally said the gathering encouraged her and her two sons, Benjamin and Ethan, to start celebrating the holiday season early.

"Ethan is learning Christmas carols on the piano, and I think we'll pull out the decorations this weekend," she said.

"It's so fun," said Benjamin, 9, as Santa rolled by in his sleigh, Mrs. Claus at his side. "I'm really excited to see Santa."

Katelyn Walker, 16, has been watching the parade for most of her life, she said, as she prepared to dribble and juggle down Main Street with the other Ashland Ambassadors, a soccer group.

"I've always come and watched Santa," she said. "My favorite part is seeing all the lights and the fact that it brings everybody together in a fun way."

Teammate Kysa McSky, also 16, agreed. "I've been in the parade multiple times, and when all the lights come on all at once, for me, it definitely signals the start of Christmas."

Mixed Reaction

At least a few onlookers were less than awed by the Grand Illumination at the end of the parade, when Santa switched on the little bulbs strung around trees and across buildings in the Plaza.

"It wasn't Times Square, but..." said Mycelia Harris, who watched with her two daughters, Azhray Harris and Laila Borden.

While Azhray, 10, said "it was awesome when everything lit up," Laila, 8, just shrugged as Santa flipped the switch.

"I liked it," Azhray said. "I think she sees him every year, but I don't."

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