The largest crowd to ever attend the Solvang tree lighting packed the park on Mission Drive to kick off the annual Julefest with music and dancing Friday night.

Organizers with the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau estimated 1,000 people attended the event that started at 5 p.m. with holiday music by the Santa Ynez Valley Wind Ensemble in the gazebo, while children with their parents lined up nearby to chat and have their pictures taken with Santa Claus.

Sharon Jeskey, director of the Wind Ensemble, entertained the crowd between songs with a series of holiday riddles — “If Rudolf lost his tail, where would he go to get a new one? … A retail store. What’s it called when one of Santa’s helpers takes his own picture? … An elfie.”

When the ensemble played, children crowded onto a small dance floor set up next to the gazebo, where they showed off their best moves for parents and friends.

Yyoung Cashton Hale stood on the edge of the gazebo floor near the back, clinging to the railing, bouncing his knees in time with the beat and turning to talk excitedly about the music with his parents, Lisa and Terry.

“We’re from Malibu,” Lisa said, adding “But, really, here too.”

She said the couple and their son come to the event every year.

“He loves music,” she said of Cashton. “He’s in a ‘Nutcracker’ dance company.”

Co-masters of ceremonies Tracy Farhad, executive director of the Solvang Conference & Visitors Bureau, which sponsors the monthlong Julefest events, and Alan Satchwell, the Worship Team music director at Santa Ynez Valley Presbyterian Church, kept up a running commentary between performers, but the crowd was officially welcomed by Solvang Mayor Jim Richardson, who was brief and to the point.

“They told me to get off the stage quickly so we can have some good entertainment,” he said. “So, merry Christmas to you all from the City Council and the city of Solvang.”

The Wind Ensemble performance was followed by the youths of Fossemalle Dance Studio, the young women’s choral group Mystique and the Santa Ynez Valley Jazz Band.

A highlight of the entertainment was a professional-quality vocal performance by eighth-grader Libby Padfield, who was accompanied on “Silent Night” by Satchwell on trumpet as the spotlights illuminated a light dusting of artificial snow drifting down over them.

The event had some surprises as well.

Farhad introduced members of the Vikings of Solvang, who explained the organization, how it supports the community with services and donations to nonprofit organizations and even taught the crowd a little Danish language.

Then, on behalf of the semimonthly newspaper Bien, which serves the Danish residents of America, Farhad presented the Bee of the Year Award to Bent Olsen of Olsen’s Danish Village Bakery.

Olsen was chosen for the crystal award for “exceptional service and dedication in promoting and servicing the Danish community in America.”

The award also came with a $1,000 prize to be donated to the charity of Olsen’s choice, which just happened to be the Vikings of Solvang.

The event climaxed with the illumination of the 20-foot lighted tree as the girls of Fossemalle performed the traditional Dance Around the Tree as the crowd oooh’d and aaaah’d and applauded.

“This was so much fun,” said Erin Dickenson of Sacramento, who said she found herself in Solvang just by chance. “I was just going to get back on the freeway and head north, but I was tired and thought I should find a room for the night.

“I saw the gathering here and decided to check it out,” she continued. “I’m so glad I did. I feel reinvigorated. I’m not tired anymore. People are so lucky to live in a place like this.”

Farhad said the Julefest kickoff drew a record crowd.

“This is the largest audience I’ve seen since 2005,” she said.

“It was just so magical,” she added, looking around at all the twinkling lights and people still lingering to mingle after the event ended. “It really put me into the holiday spirit.”

At the start of the program, Farhad had asked how many in the crowd were from out of the area and how many were local residents, and the cheering and clapping in response to each question were virtually identical.

“I’d say it was split about 50-50,” she said.

SCVB member Laura Kath agreed.

“I talked to people from Orange County, Los Angeles, Wisconsin,” Kath said. “They all said they came here because they wanted that small-town feeling. You’re not going to find this kind of atmosphere, this community feeling, in a big city — even Santa Barbara or Santa Maria.”

“And a lot of them come back year after year,” Farhad added. “They come here and experience this, they have the art and the wine, and they decide to make it part of their family tradition. … I overheard one person say, ‘This is just like a show.’ Well, yeah, it is.”

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News Editor

Mike Hodgson is news editor at the Santa Ynez Valley News, where he writes about local government, special events and the people who live in the Valley. He has been a photographer, writer, news editor and managing editor at weekly newspapers since 1972

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