Festival rings in the season

It's official: The holiday season is now underway in La Cañada Flintridge.

Families gathered by the dozen Thursday evening in Memorial Park for the 16th annual Festival in Lights celebration, taking delight in live holiday music, two kids' snow-play areas, a pair of reindeer and an appearance by the season's top celebrity couple — Santa and Mrs. Claus, who arrived in a 1915 Ford Model-T behind a noisy fire and Sheriff's Department escort to hear kids' Christmas wishes and switch on holiday lights at the park and along Foothill Boulevard.

"It's about family, friends, the whole spirit of this community. It's so neat," said longtime La Cañada Flintridge resident Shirley Myers, who's attended all 16 festivals.

Myers' son, Rich Myers, performed holiday standards with the local band Misplaced Priorities, which took the stage following choirs from Palm Crest and Paradise Canyon elementary schools and the Chamber Singers of La Cañada High School.

Before Santa's arrival, Linda Eaton of the La Cañada Junior Women's Club announced the five members of this 2011 Miss La Cañada Flintridge Court from among the contest's 14 finalists — the lucky local 11th graders being Taani Ahluwalia, Stephanie Bathke, Morgan Devaud, Robin Miketta and Gemma Sokol.

"All the girls are very poised and accomplished both scholastically and in extracurricular activities. It was a very tough field to narrow down," said Eaton, who added that any group pulled from the finalists would have made an exceptional court.

Members of the crowd cheered for all of the contest's participants, but perhaps the loudest was Sokol's mother Ronna Mandel.

"Volunteering is Gemma's middle name. I'm so proud of her and of all the girls who put themselves out there. It's not easy to do," Mandel said.

What was easy, it seemed, was for families to enjoy plenty of quality time together — that is, when the kids weren't busy frolicking in seven tons of snow spread out in two play patches.

"It's a fun event that really brings out the Christmas spirit. This is what we look for to ring in Christmas every year," said Jarmen Shirvanian, who brought along husband Boris, daughter Nayiri, 10, and son Nareg, 3.

This year's festival was as festive as any, and perhaps even a little more crowded than previous years, said Don and Maggi Graf, who after nearly two decades as Santa and Mrs. Claus watched events unfold on the gazebo stage while tending to two reindeer they help care for at the Tehachapi-based Animal Education Center at Windswept Ranch.

"It's been growing a little bit each year," said Chamber of Commerce President Pat Anderson of the Chamber-organized, city-sponsored event, hosted by La Cañada school board member Joel Peterson and featuring greetings from Mayor Don Voss.

Councilman Dave Spence called the festival "a highlight of the year for the city."

"It was really exciting for the kids to see Santa come down the street with the sirens going," said Vicki Shroeder, whose 5-year-old daughter Chloe and son Luke, 3, enjoyed candy canes after a visit with the man of the hour.

For local merchants, Santa's arrival was only the beginning of the night's festivities, as Foothill Boulevard retailers involved in the La Cañada Flintridge Merchant Connection's Merry Mingle event prepared to greet post-festival crowds with more holiday music and some free snacks and sweets.

"The concept is great because it's helping the merchants to know each other better and getting families to come out and explore local businesses," Charlie Kamar, owner of the La Cañada Union 76 Station and a prospective City Council candidate, said of the Merry Mingle, which offered shoppers free shuttles from Memorial Park.

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