Christmas, that is. It arrived on the heels of Thanksgiving with a bang and a smattering of holiday spirit in the form of the annual Christmas Comes to Kenai celebration.
The annual festivities on the Friday following Thanksgiving, during which Santa Claus and a healthy dose of Christmas cheer descend upon the central Kenai Peninsula, are about more than a fun tradition to Kenai residents Laurie and Dennis Schaeffer. The beloved celebration has been intertwined with the couple’s marriage for the last quarter century.
“We got married actually on one of these (Christmas Comes to Kenai) days because of the fireworks,” Laurie Schaeffer said. “So we are coming up on our 25th anniversary.”
The celebration that includes not only fireworks but also a visit with Santa, a lights parade and a bonfire has been a part of the Schaeffer’s lives for years, even before their wedding. Laurie Schaeffer said she’s been coming as long as she’s lived in Alaska.
“(It’s been) 33 years, and how many years have you been here?” she asked, turning to her husband.
“I don’t do math that high,” he joked.
The couple bundled up along with hundreds of other children and parents to accompany their grandchildren to see Santa at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. His visit Friday morning is one of the most popular Christmas Comes to Kenai events, with families eagerly queued up on the sidewalk spanning the length of the center’s parking lot awaiting the big man’s annual arrival on a Kenai Fire Department engine, appropriately decked out in lights for the occasion.
“We were here at 9:30 (a.m.),” Dennis Schaeffer said of the meet-and-greet, which didn’t start until 11 a.m.
As chilled as some kids looked in the frosty morning air, Kenai Chamber of Commerce President Johna Beech said things have improved since the days when Santa was stationed on the deck of the old chamber of commerce cabin, more than 30 years ago.
While Christmas Comes to Kenai is a traditional staple in the town, Beech said organizers make little tweaks here and there to switch things up from year to year. Former Kenai Mayor Pat Porter used to make crafts with children while they waited in line to sit on Santa’s lap, Beech said.
This year, the kids got the chance to write out their Christmas wish lists while waiting to talk with the big man.
“We’ll actually mail them, you know, to Santa, and then Santa will reply back to them,” Beech said.
Event organizers are always prepared with goody bags for 300 kids, Beech said. Last year, there were at least 285 children who took the bags, but probably more that attended, she said.
Beech said it’s a combination of factors that make the annual celebration so popular.
“It’s the first time Santa’s seen in town, is the main thing,” she said. “And then also fireworks. It’s the first time that we see fireworks for the year … It’s also nice of course, on the business side of things, to keep things local, shop local instead of running off to other towns.”
Local shops from Sweeney’s to the Kenai Peninsula Harley Davidson offered residents a reason to spend their Black Friday funds locally, with several stores carrying their deals over into Saturday. Steve Beeson, owner of Beemun’s in Soldotna, said the store had a steady flow of customers throughout the day Friday.
“We’re rebels here, and we opened at 8 (a.m.) instead of 9,” he said with a laugh.
However, Beeson said the rush never reached the hectic level usually associated with Black Friday, “and that’s OK.”
“Our thing is always thanking people for shopping locally,” he said.
Across town, Kenai Central High School was filled to the brim with crafts, art and other gifts Friday and Saturday, as vendors came from around the state to sell their wares at the Peninsula Art Guild’s Fine Arts and Crafts Fair.
For some vendors, the fair is one of the best events they attend all year. Karen Tocktoo, owner of Two Spirits Gallery, came down from the Anchorage area to sell both her own work and that contributed to the gallery by other artists from Seward Peninsula, where she originally lived in Shishmaref.
In her fourth year coming to the fair, she said the gallery tends to do well.
“This is one of the shows that you know everything is made in Alaska, besides maybe 10 percent,” Tocktoo said. “Wherever you go, it’s locally made.”
For other vendors, the fair is just a hop, skip and a jump from home. Nikiski residents Karen Baucum and her husband, Mike, were working Friday to sell her original paintings, which she puts on saw blades and gold pans in addition to the traditional canvas. Having started making jewelry as a way to help herself recover physically after a bout of cancer in 2008, Baucum said she expanded to sell her paintings as well.
“Everything’s hand painted and created by me,” she said. “Everything’s original.”
“And carried in by me,” Mike Baucum joked.
After bringing her work to the fair for about the last five years, Baucum said she hoped to sell most of what she has left and make this year her last.
“I damaged my arm, and so I don’t think that I will be doing it (anymore),” she said. “But you never know what will happen.”
Once residents had their fill of Santa and shopping, they were treated to the ever-explosive light parade and fireworks that round out Christmas Comes to Kenai outside the visitor center. With hot chocolate provided by McDonald’s and served by the Kenai Lions Club, and a toasty bonfire stoked by members of the Alaska Unocal Retirees’ Association, kids and adults alike let out “oohs” and “ahhs” until the last lights faded from the sky, and Christmas was officially welcomed to town.