Dec. 2—NORTH ANDOVER — It's going to be another festive day in North Andover, if there are close to the number of people at Saturday's tree lighting as there were at the Santa Parade last weekend.
"There should be, judging by our Facebook page," said Jeffrey Coco, chair of North Andover's Festival Committee. "We have, so far, around 500 who plan to attend."
At past tree lightings, when the attendance was only 250, the committee felt "bombarded" as they handed out between 800 and 1,000 cookies and cups of hot chocolate, Coco said.
But this Saturday's tree lighting should contrast even more with last year's, when the event was held virtually due to the pandemic.
"We went through all the motions, as if we had our traditional tree lighting, but we didn't have the public attend," Coco said. "We had North Andover Cam there to film the whole thing, and then broadcast it over the cable network. It was a little unusual for us in attendance, who were used to the energy of the crowds. But we got through it."
The pandemic is still helping to define the way this Saturday's event will unfold. The tree lighting ceremony runs from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Town Common.
Along with hot chocolate, cookies and a tree lighting, Santa will arrive on a fire truck. He will greet visitors in a tent, but with some social-distancing restrictions.
"Normally we have children sit in Santa's lap," Coco said. "We're not going to allow that this year."
The pandemic has also caused disruptions to the usual musical entertainment at the tree lighting, but Coco is confident that there will be music in some form.
"When Santa arrives, hopefully it will go well," he said. "We had a lot of things to overcome because of Covid."
Detective Lt. Eric Foulds of the North Andover Police Department, who helps organize the Santa Parade as a member of the Festival Committee, said the pandemic also made it hard to pull last Saturday's parade together.
"Normally we start fundraising in the spring, and the Festival Committee gathers funds," he said. "This year, we got a late start. We did no fundraising, because we didn't know what was going to be the mandate, as far as Covid was concerned."
When they did finally get a green light to raise funds, some of the bands they might have hired in the past either were not available, or had prior commitments. But in some ways, that turned out to be a good thing.
"I was worried the parade was going to be lighter than in years past," he said. "But it had a real community feel to it, because we had a lot more business groups and sports groups participate. A lot of people made floats. There is the 375th anniversary, and people celebrated that. Honestly, I think it was one of our better parades."
Along with the staff of Rolf's Pub dressed as Ghostbusters, and performers from the North Andover School of Dance, the parade included a massive pickup truck from Earth Works contractors hauling a Christmas tree.
Members of North Andover High School's football team, which recently beat Andover in a close game at Fenway Park, also crowded onto a float with a birthday cake for the town.
"It's our 375th anniversary, and it's also Andover's," Foulds said. "So that made the win over Andover that much more special."
Foulds, who has served on the Festival Committee for 11 years, grew up in North Andover and remembers the Santa Parade from his childhood.
"The parade route, if I remember, was a little bit different, but I always remember having the Santa Parade," he said. "It got a little small for a while, but we've been able to build it up."
He said that people called him up until the day before this year's parade, asking if they could participate. But he wasn't sure how impressive it was going to be until he saw the dancers, banners and floats start out from North Andover Middle School, where he was directing traffic.
"It was plenty cold, and I thought that might hurt turnout, both participants and spectators," Foulds said. "But it didn't hurt at all. The crowd that showed up to watch was unbelievable."