ONEIDA — The city of Oneida came together to welcome the holiday season and enjoy themselves after a tumultuous year with its Christmas Festival on Friday.
The event was a way to kick off the holiday season in the city, starting with the annual tree lighting ceremony.
Last year's tree lighting ceremony at Higinbotham Park was done remotely and, while safe and smart during a global pandemic, wasn't the same. This year, restrictions were lifted, and the community came out in force with hundreds of residents on hand to welcome Santa Claus to Oneida and light the tree.
"It's our largest Christmas event in a long time; this is just so wonderful," said Mayor Helen Acker. She added people must have been so tired of being stuck at home and just want to enjoy Christmas.
A long line of children waited for a chance to speak to Old Saint Nick, who was happy to hear what they wanted for Christmas.
Longtime Oneida resident Norma Happle was there with her boyfriend and remembered when the Christmas tree was first planted in Higinbotham.
"It started out as this little thing that's grown to be a center of the community. I love it," Happle said. "It's grown so much and shows our community is growing and changing for the good."
The two were surprised to see just so many people from the community come together for the holidays and enjoy each other's company.
"I have chills to see everyone out. Wonderful things are happening in the city of Oneida, and I'm touched by that," she said. "There's unity in our community... We've seen some tough times here in Oneida. But if we stay strong, encourage each other, and come together, it all works out in the end."
"I'm really proud of Oneida."
But the tree lighting wasn't the end of the festivities. Local businesses in the area kept their lights on and doors open. Decorations filled the windows, and the Bogardus Performing Arts Center had actors for live window displays.
While more than 300 people gathered at Higinbotham park, more than twice that gathered along Main Street for the city's first-ever Parade of Lights.
Ward 2 Councilor Steve Laureti said the parade was something the city council wanted to keep the positive energy flowing and bring home some Christmas cheer.
And positive energy was abound as parents and children smiled, laughed, and cheered at the Parade of emergency vehicles and cars decked to the nines for the holidays — letting Oneida residents know that Christmas was here.
The Christmas celebration continued at the Kallet Civic Center, where vendors, food trucks, and activities for the kids were set up.
As Oneida Library Youth Coordinator Megan Gillander read Dr. Seuss's "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to an audience of enraptured children that only grew as the story went on, Thomas and Darlene Kirley sat with their seven-month-old grandson Ryker. Born and raised in Oneida, the husband and wife had nothing but praise for the holiday celebrations.
"This has been great, especially after the lockdown," Thomas said. "This has been a nice thing the city has done, and it's probably only going to get bigger."
Both Thomas and Darlene can't wait to see the Parade of Lights become a regular fixture in the city — something they could share with Ryker for years to come.
"It just feels so nice to get out again and do things with the family," Thomas said. "We couldn't do anything for so long, and it's nice to see people."
"And be part of the community," Darlene added.