While still light out and hours before fireworks would ripple across the night sky, the under-12-or-so set was partying in Annapolis.
Inside the city recreation center yesterday, hundreds of youngsters and their parents reveled in the arts: creating cardboard crowns adorned with feathers, listening to folk songs and lining up to receive balloons shaped into anything from princess wands to Elmo hats.
Jillian Jackson, 5, of Annapolis created fortune cookie-like crafts with tan felt circles, stapling the tops and sliding in a thin strip of paper.
"Jillian loves you," she wrote. One for Mom and one for Dad, she said.
Those festivities kicked off last night's New Year's Eve celebration in Maryland's capital city -- pulled together this year by Annapolis Alive!, the group organizing the 300th- anniversary celebration of the city's charter.
While smaller in scale than in years past, when the nonprofit First Night Annapolis put on the party and often attracted 30,000 or more celebrants, last night's festivities drew a steady steam of revelers to the city's historic downtown.
The financially strapped First Night, which had planned and executed the city's New Year's Eve celebration since 1990, disbanded this fall after years of failing to break even and being unable this year to raise enough money to put on the giant celebration of the arts. It had included up to 50 sites across downtown and cost upward of $300,000.
Instead of leaving the city without the proper alcohol-free venue with fireworks to ring in 2008, the city and Annapolis Alive! stepped in, creating a New Year's event after just two months of planning.
Although last night's event -- replete with live music -- was confined to the recreation center and the lower portion of Main Street and was expected to draw about 7,000 or so visitors, it was entirely free, save for a $10 ticket to attend Rock at the Rec, a battle-of-the-bands event. First Night charged $22 for a button that admitted patrons to a host of events across the city.
"All day long there's been this steady stream," said Karen Engelke, the city's special events coordinator, who worked to put together last night's event. "People are smiling. People are happy. It's so awesome. We'll see how the crowds hold together through the night."
Just as darkness was setting in, about 200 people -- many of them youngsters -- crowded in front of a stage set up at 122 Main St. The main attraction was Melody Page, in a long blond wig and a gold glittery shirt, belting out tunes and dancing furiously, as the tween sensation Hannah Montana.
"She's awesome," said Katie Bradley, 14, of Sikeston, Mo., who was visiting her grandparents in Montgomery County for the holiday.
Scott McClellan was one of dozens walking along Main Street then. He was awaiting the main event.
"The fireworks, of course," said McClellan, 30, when asked why he planned to spend his New Year out in the street. "You always come to see the fireworks."
In an effort to draw more people, some downtown businesses, besides restaurants, stayed open later than usual. Ron George, owner of Ron George Jewelers, said he hoped to sell the store's remaining glass-etched Annapolis ornaments featuring images of the State House, crabs and local churches.
Selling some of the store's specialties -- ruby jewelry and diamond engagement rings -- wouldn't be so bad, either, he said.
George, a state delegate representing Annapolis, said he planned to keep his doors open until 11 and then "go home with my best friend" -- his wife.