After 20 years, Catonsville's annual lighting of the town's Christmas Tree and welcoming of Santa easily qualifies as a cherished tradition for this tightly-knit community.
The Nov. 30 event was ample proof of that.
Greg Morgan, the spark plug behind Catonsville's annual Yuletide celebration since its outset, was overcome with emotion as he stood on a portable stage and welcomed more than a thousand people, young and old, to Saturday evening's event in the 700 block of Frederick Road.
The crowd braved the chill and gathered around dusk to view the tree lighting at the Catonsville Fire Department, as many had done for years on the Saturday after Thanksgiving.
Morgan vividly recalled when he, his wife and oldest son Gregory, then a toddler, now a 23-year-old grad school student, planted the town's first official Christmas tree in the small open space at the intersection with Egges Lane. Several hundred people showed up that night in 1994.
Saturday night's crowd was bigger than ever. It filled the park, the sidewalks and spilled out to engulf nearly an entire block of Frederick Road, which was cordoned off to traffic for the occasion.
Gazing at the people — kids and grown-ups decked out in Santa Claus hats and reindeer antlers, many waving non-flammable sparklers and light tubes with quite a few little ones riding on their dads' shoulders to get a better look at Santa Claus when he arrived — brought tears to Morgan's eyes
"This has to be the biggest crowd we've ever in the 20 years we've been doing this," he said, shaking his head in wonder as he gazed up at the regal blue spruce bedecked with ornaments crafted by students at Westowne Elementary School.
"Just knowing that this started when our oldest son was 4 and our youngest son was 7 months old, and seeing how it's evolved is wonderful," he said. "There are kids here tonight who were here 20 years ago who are now here with their own kids. I look out at all these young faces and I realize that this has become a tradition here in Catonsville."
One of these second-generationers Morgan referred to is Lacey Jennings Grace, 25.
Grace grew up in Catonsville and now works at Jennings Cafe, which her great-grandfather, Omar, opened more than half a century ago.
Grace has been coming to the tree lighting since the holiday event started. Saturday night, she brought her daughter, Elianna, 2 1/2 months, for her first time.
"Growing up in Catonsville, I have lots of happy memories of Christmas time," she said. "The tree lighting ceremony is when the holiday season really shifts into high gear, with all the kids seeing Santa and talking about him.
"It's something I want my daughter to look forward to when she's old enough to remember," Grace said. "So I've started her young. I'm sure she'll be here with her Christmas wish list in a couple more years!"
Elianna also loves lights, another reason her mother brought her along Saturday night.
There were lights, and sounds, and music, and hot chocolate galore.
The crowd's size and energy grew, aided by a half-dozen members of the Brooklyn Park-based Harbor City Music Company singing traditional carols.
"What do you call someone who's scared of Santa Claus?" one of the singers asked between songs, drawing blank stares from the youngsters.
"Aw c'mon, that's easy," she teased. "They're claus-trophobic."
This drew a round of giggles and cheers from the kids and groans from the adults.