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.
"Well, I hope you all aren't afraid of Santa Claus," the singer teased the crowd.. "Because he'll be here soon!"
This drew a crescendo of squeals and cheers.
A local student group, from the Catonsville Children's' Theater, dressed like a flash mob of Santa's cheerleaders, danced to a Christmas tune on Frederick Avenue. Next came a brief fireworks show, launched from the chimney of the firehouse.
Morgan and fellow organizer Scott Westcoat, owner of Catonsville's Hub Bike Shop on Frederick Road, began a chant picked up by everyone: "San-ta! San-ta! San-ta!"
Next came a countdown to lighting the 18-foot-tall tree.
But the tree lighting was just the warm-up for the younger set, most of whom had by now compiled and memorized their Christmas wish lists.
Tonight, they wouldn't get to sit on Santa's lap and offer up their Christmas gift manifesto. The Santa House is open to do so on Fridays, 6-8 p.m., and Saturdays, 2-4 p.m., before Christmas. The house is also open Sunday, Dec. 22, 2-5 p.m.
But they would get to file past Santa and pause long enough to take a picture and get a candy cane, a hug, a pat on the head.
A fire truck, its lights flashing, turned out of the firehouse and turned on to Frederick Avenue. There, atop the truck, waving, was the man of the hour, greeted with cheers.
Andrew Fowler was there with his mother, Emily, and his younger sister, Lauren. He had his Christmas list ready and planned on returning to the Santa House later in the week to present it to Santa.
Andrew, who attends Relay Elementary School, said he always looks forward to seeing the fireworks and watching Santa Claus arrive.
"I want Legos, and a bike helmet," he said. He said he was confident he would get them. After all, Santa has come through for him in past years.
When he stood in line to meet Santa and get a candy cane, Santa singled him out and told Andrew he liked his Santa hat, something that Andrew took as a good sign.
Andrew's mother says she's been bringing her children to the tree lighting for the past four years.
She said she looks forward to the evening as much as her children. "My husband and I both went to Catonsville High School," she said. "We always run into a lot of people we know. Catonsville really is a great community. You can tell that by all the people who come out for this."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun