Columbia County will officially mark the beginning of the holiday season this week with a trio of Christmas tree lightings and a pair of parades.
The city of Harlem starts off the season with its tree-lighting at 6 p.m. Thursday. Grovetown then flips the switch to light its Christmas tree and City Hall decorations at 7 p.m. Friday, and the city's annual Christmas parade continues the festivities at noon Saturday.
Later Saturday, the fifth annual Christmas in America tree-lighting celebration takes place at the Evans Judicial Center.
The festivities begin with Santa's arrival at 4:30 p.m., and a music program starting just before 5:30 p.m., which will include performances by the Lakeside High School Jazz Ensemble, the Oakey Grove Men's Chorus and the Columbia County Elementary School Mass Chorus. Food and craft vendors will be on hand throughout the afternoon event.
"We're very excited about our fifth year of lighting Columbia County's Christmas tree," said Barry Paschal, the publisher of The Columbia County News-Times and chairman of the Christmas celebration. "This is a great way to jump-start the Christmas season and get the whole community in the holiday spirit."
This year, Christmas in America will honor evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. Evacuees Justin and Amanda Black, eighth-graders at Evans Middle School, and their mother, Karyn Lombard, of Slidell, La., will be honorary tree lighters, along with other evacuees attending Columbia County schools.
Justin caught the final touchdown pass during the last game at the old Evans Middle School stadium. The family has permanently moved to Columbia County.
"Our honorary tree lighters are always special, and this year we're happy that we've invited Katrina evacuees living temporarily or permanently in Columbia County to join us and be welcomed by the community," Paschal said.
"A lot of these folks will be away from their homes this Christmas, so we want to be sure they feel our hospitality," he said.
Also helping to light the tree will be Mandy Wheeler, Miss Columbia County Fair, representing the Columbia County Merchants Association in preparation for the annual Martinez-Evans Christmas Parade on Sunday.
The Rev. Reese LeRoy and members of the Vineyard Worship Team, who recently returned from a mission trip to areas along the Gulf Coast devastated by Katrina, will lead the music during the tree-lighting, Paschal said.
Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross will open the festivities, and WJBF-TV News Channel 6 anchor Jennie Montgomery will emcee the event.
New this year, thanks to a donation from Zaxby's, the 20 magnolias on the lawn of the Judicial Center received lights and will be timed to the lighting of the county Christmas tree, said Stacie Adkins, the community events manager for the county.
As always, the Columbia County Elementary School Mass Chorus will lead a singalong of Let There be Peace on Earth to conclude the ceremony.
Directed by Niki Chambers, a music teacher at South Columbia Elementary School, the chorus consists of fourth- and fifth-graders from across the county and stands 300 to 400 members strong.
"I think it is a great community thing, to get together with your neighbors and just officially kick off the Christmas season," said Carly Kobiasar, a special-events manager with the county.
The festivities continue at 2 p.m. Sunday with the annual Martinez-Evans Christmas Parade running along a completely new route.
The parade, presented by the Merchants Association of Columbia County, will begin along Ronald Reagan Drive at Washington Road and proceed south down Belair Road, ending at Bel Air Elementary School.
Its tree is lighted first, but the city of Harlem waits until the next weekend for its holiday festivities with Christmas in the Heart of Downtown Harlem from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Dec. 10. The city's Christmas Parade begins at 11 a.m. Dec. 10.
In another annual feature, Sharon Baptist Church's Hayride Through the Life of Christ will be held from 7-9:30 p.m. Dec. 15-18 at the Columbia County Fairgrounds on Columbia Road. The annual event features scenes from Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection.
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