Area turns aglow as tree is lit, boats go on parade, marshmallows toasted

"I feel it! I feel the magic!" Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said on a stage in Marion Square in front of a few hundred people, right before fog from a machine enveloped where he was standing. Out stepped Santa, and the audience cheered.

"Will you help us light the tree?" Riley and Santa asked. They were met with a resounding "Yeah!" from the crowd.

"Then let the tree be lit!" As they pointed to the tree, thousands of lights were aglow on the 60-foot Tree of Lights.

It was nearly impossible to not catch the holiday spirit Saturday as several festivals got under way. In addition to the tree lighting at Marion Square, the Charleston Harbor boasted the 28th annual Parade of Boats, and North Charleston held its annual Holiday Festival and Parade at Park Circle.

All the events had a mix of longtime residents and newcomers who came to see what the fuss was about.

"We just stumbled upon it," said Carolyn Boltin, who brought her 5-year-old daughter, Carly, to the North Charleston festival. They have lived in the city for two years and heard about it after they went to Breakfast with Santa at Park Circle, something else mother and daughter enjoyed.

"It was really good. It wasn't commercialized and overdone," Boltin said. So when they heard there would be more festivities later in the day, they were eager to be there.

"It's so family-friendly and local," she said. "They're selling local crafts and everything." The Friendship Baptist Church choir struck up traditional Christmas tunes while groups of little girls got into costume to dance. The festival also had its share of edible goodies, including hot dogs, nachos, cupcakes and gingerbread men, as well as marshmallows to roast over a bonfire.

At Waterfront Park, there was no bonfire to speak of as the coastal breeze blew. But dozens huddled together as one decorated boat after another went by. One pontoon had the lit outline of a dragon breathing a blinking fireball. A tour boat had a deck lined with red candy canes. And the Charleston Fire Department had a boat decked out with lights, a firefighter swinging a blue hose and a water spout from the bow of the boat. Fireworks were shot off of Fort Johnson.

In Marion Square, Riley encouraged Charlestonians to spread the good cheer of Christmas around the world.

Company Company, the nonprofit performance organization that provided this year's entertainment, picked a group of children to come onstage and sing "The Twelve Days of Christmas" as the audience cheered them on.

"This is a lot cuter than last year," said Skip Sautter, a sound technician who helped set up the stage. "There's a lot more interaction this year."