Santa Claus made an early stop in Hermiston on Thursday night, checking in with the town’s little ones about what they want for Christmas during the annual Winterfest.

The centerpiece of the event on the festival street was a roughly 45-foot Christmas tree, decked out in thousands of multicolored lights. This year the privilege of flipping the switch to light the tree went to Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner.

“This is probably the greatest honor I’ve ever had as a state representative,” he told the crowd.

Before Santa’s arrival, Smith spoke about remembering the true meaning of Christmas. He referenced the song “Carol of the Drum,” also known as “The Little Drummer Boy,” and said that each person has a gift they can give.

“Let’s remember what the season is about,” he said. “It’s about family. It’s about love. It’s about caring for our Savior and those in need.”

As the large crowd huddled around outdoor space heaters, waiting for Santa’s arrival on a fire truck, Smith conducted an impromptu sing-along, pulling people up from the audience to lead everyone in their favorite Christmas carol.

“This is your chance — American Idol, Hermiston style,” he said.

Sutton Osborne, 10, led everyone in “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Later in the evening, while he was waiting in line to see Santa, he said he was going to ask for a series of books called “Who was ...”.

“I want something more to read,” he said.

Ryleigh Leighton, 8, said she was going to ask for a camera and a realistic baby doll.

While much of the night centered around Santa and the tree, it was also about spotlighting downtown businesses. The Hermiston Downtown District was having its monthly First Thursday event in conjunction with Winterfest, and businesses were open later than usual and offered special deals. Speakers at the beginning of the event also highlighted several local businesses and encouraged people to shop locally this month.

Winterfest also offered a fundraiser opportunity for several good causes, including Vange John Memorial Hospice. The organization was selling Christmas ornaments featuring different branches of the military to raise money for programs for hospice patients. The hospice set up a display in the window of Victory Baptist Church next to the festival street, featuring snowflakes in memory of people who have died.

The festival street will be closed to vehicle traffic until Christmas, but pedestrians are welcome to visit the tree and see a light show each half hour from 5-8 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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