Tradition mixed with innovation last week, as county Christmas celebrations continued in fine fashion in Eastpoint and St. George Island.
Drawing for the first time on a coalition of St. George Island groups, including the business association, civic club, lighthouse association, Apalachicola Bay Chamber of Commerce/Island Visitors Center, and Tourist Development Council, the island’s combined efforts drew on more than 100 volunteers to create “this amazingly successful island project,” said Pat O’Connell, one of the event’s leading organizers.
“The crowd was twice as large as anticipated,” she said. “Santa’s helpers, all members of the business association, created 100 bags of toys but nearly 200 children attended. The helpers scrambled to ensure that every child received toys and candies.”
The Dinner Divas unexpectedly used up their supply of books in certain age groups, but every child was able to participate in the Bring Me a Book Franklin tradition.
TDC Director John Solomon served more than 300 hot dog dinners, and the Beach Pit ran out of hot chocolate but managed to keep the hot coffee and fresh-baked cookies coming, O’Connell said.
The event began Thursday afternoon with a modest golf cart parade, that drew about two dozen uniquely decorated golf carts participating in the route around Franklin Boulevard. The sheriff’s office, the island’s volunteer fire department, and the island’s Volunteer Posse escorted the parade and provided traffic control.
As Santa Claus, whose visit was arranged by Pastor Brian Brightly of the island’s Methodist Church, greeted children on the porch of the lighthouse museum, the children’s tent provided face painting, letters to Santa, oyster shell painting, and other guided creative activities to keep children entertained while awaiting their visit with the Jolly Old Elf.
O’Connell, who also serves as chair of the county’s Census committee, made sure that free US Census tote bags, provided by the US Census Bureau, came in handy to publicize the upcoming 2020 Census on April 1.
The big moment arrived when ABC School eighth grader Caelyn Constantine led the entire effort after Santa selected her name to flip the switch for the Lighting of the Palms.
Santa Elves, spread throughout the area, accomplished the simultaneous lighting of the more than 35,000 lights on the palms, the Lighthouse, and children’s wonderland, by lots of practice and cell-phone coordination, O’Connell said.
She said the only downside of the weekend-long event was that the planned Super Santa Sale Weekend did not entice many new shoppers. “While this was a disappointment to the merchants who had planned weekend sales events, the overall experience was a pleasure for the island,” she said.
O’Connell said the event wrapped up with a final surprise and renewal of community spirit, when Trash Patrol volunteers showed up on Friday morning. “The group was surprised to find the area to be litter free,” she said. “The recent campaign by islanders to improve the appearance of the island and reduce litter appears to be working.”
Late on Friday afternoon, it was a chance for Eastpoint to mark the Christmas holiday, and they did so with the traditional parade down US 98, and a follow-up party at the Eastpoint firehouse.
“The perfect weather brought out golf carts, fire trucks, and the Coastal Crusaders (a Christian motorcycle club) was a fun addition,” said Dottye Thornburg, the organizer of the event.
Thornburg once again gathered donations from businesses and individuals in Eastpoint and surrounding areas, and thus was able to fund tables stocked with gifts.
“My best guess there was close to 170 happy children,” she said. “There wasn’t one child that didn’t find a toy they were happy with.”
“They get so excited to be able to pick out any toy on the tables,” she said.
If any toys were left over, Thornburg makes sure they go to groups within the county who offer Christmas gifts to those in need, or homeless shelters in neighboring counties.
In addition to Rex Pennycuff once again arranging for Santa’s visit, his wife Jamie this year made sure Mrs. Claus was invited as well, and she helped to cheer the children in line, many of them carrying books they had just received from the Dinner Divas, in conjunction with Bring Me A Book Franklin.
And many with painted faces, thanks to a booth manned by art teacher Lydia Countryman and Kelsey Griffin.
“The addition of Mrs. Claus was exciting to add her into the photos,” said Thornburg.
Liz Sisung, with the Bay Area Choral Society, arranged for many of her fellow vocalists to provide carols at the firehouse.
“We are so glad that the bad weather a couple of years ago forced us to move to the Eastpoint fire station because it was actually a blessing,” said Thornburg. “Everyone agrees that it feels more like a family party and as always, the Bay Area Choral Society singers added a warm and loving feeling to the room.
“Especially when everyone in the room starts singing with them,” she added.