Ed Taylor has been growing his beard out since April in preparation for Ashland's annual Festival of Light parade Friday.

Ed Taylor has been growing his beard out since April in preparation for Ashland's annual Festival of Light parade Friday.

"I'm looking in the mirror saying, 'What am I doing here?'" Taylor said Monday. "But there's such a spirit of giving and sharing this time of year and I just love being a part of it and a part of it in this way."

Ashland's Santa will lead the 5 p.m. parade from the Ashland Branch Library to the Plaza. Then he'll climb atop the balcony at Alex's Plaza Restaurant and start a countdown to switch on more than a million lights hung on downtown buildings and trees.

As many as 20,000 people are expected to attend the parade, said Katharine Flanagan, marketing director for the Ashland Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the festival.

Taylor, who has led the parade for the past two years and has been dressing as Santa for about seven, said he looks forward to the Grand Illumination every year.

"When you look out and see how many thousands of people are there — that huge crowd — it's just really moving that we're all coming together in such a joyful spirit," Taylor said. "And when the Plaza lights up, it's just really magical."

The theme of the festival is "Find Your Holiday Spirit in Ashland," Flanagan said.

"There's a lot of hustle and bustle out there for the holidays and we want folks to be able to enjoy themselves," she said.

The festivities will begin at 1 p.m. in the Plaza with entertainment, including the Ashland Brass Quintet, Peace Choir and Camelot Theatre.

About 100 people, decked in twinkle lights and glow sticks, are expected to march in the parade.

The Grand Illumination countdown will start at about 5:45 p.m., Flanagan said.

Between 6:45 and 8 p.m., children can visit Santa and Mrs. Claus, who resembles Taylor's wife, Lori, at the Black Swan Theater on the corner of Pioneer and East Main streets.

On Saturday, community members can take free photos with Santa in the Oregon Shakespeare Information Center, across from the Black Swan Theater, between 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Santa also will pose for pictures on Dec. 4, 11 and 18, during the same hours. The photos will be posted online, where people can download or print them for free.

Carolers will roam downtownevery Saturday before Christmas.

Taylor, an Internet marketing consultant, also offers personalized videos from Santa to children through his website, SantaEd.com. He posts the $32 video Christmas cards on YouTube and sends recipients links to view them.

Because of the economic downturn, Taylor is trying to shift the focus of the holiday away from gifts, he said.

"This year, because I know that it is a little bit of a difficult time for a lot of people, I'm trying to bring the focus more on what we can all do for each other — the real spirit of it," he said. "I'm trying to have that kind of discussion with kids and families when I have the opportunity."