The 18th Annual Tamaqua Spirit of Christmas Festival will kick off Friday, launching three days of attractions and events geared to all ages.

Organizers say the winter fest, set for Dec. 6-8, sends a message that the special magic of the holidays is part of all of us, it's right here at home, and there's always something new to enjoy.

"We're excited about the Santa Claus Steam Train Rides," said Jean Ann Towle, chairman. "And another new event this year will be our Victorian Tea. We're also very pleased with the volunteers that have sponsored our tree festival this year and for those who have volunteered to decorate the trees."

A showcase of community spirit, the annual Tamaqua holiday festival brings together clubs, churches and organizations to stage one of the largest holiday festivals in Schuylkill County.

Santa's coming to town

The event kicks off Friday with the Arrival of Santa Parade and a new parade route.

The parade will step off at 6 p.m. from St. Jerome's parking lot in west Tamaqua and proceed to Berwick Street and Depot Square Park. There, Claus and the Mrs. will magically illuminate thousands of lights before moving on to the Tamaqua Community Arts Center, 125 Pine St.

"Santa and Mrs. Claus will greet the children, and you'll be able to take your own photos with Santa," said Towle, adding, "Santa will listen to children's wishes."

The arts center will feature trees decorated by individuals, businesses and organizations. Visitors will be asked to select a People's Choice winner. The trees are then distributed to deserving families. Trees will be on display from 6-8 p.m. Dec. 6; 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Dec. 7;, and 1-4 p.m. Dec. 8. More information is available at 570-668-3268.

Cookies

Other competitions include the Annual Holiday Cookie Contest. The contest is open to all residents and consists of the baking of a minimum of two dozen cookies in one of four categories: drop cookie, bar cookie, decorated cookie or filled cookie. Entries can be dropped off at the Tamaqua Area Chamber of Commerce between 2-3 p.m. Saturday.

Similarly, a Gingerbread House Decorating Contest for children ages 6 to 12 and adults 13 and up is under way. Contestants can drop off their completed houses at the Tamaqua Arts Center no later than Thursday. A People's Choice award will be decided by votes from visitors to the arts center. There is no entry fee. Rules and entry forms are available online at www.tamaqua.net or by visiting the arts center.

Winners of the cookie and gingerbread contests will be announced at the tree lighting ceremony.

Train rides

Also set for Saturday are the Santa Claus Special Steam Train rides. Three trips will leave the depot. An 11 a.m. excursion will head to New Ringgold; and 1 and 3 p.m. excursions will go through the Tamaqua Tunnel and on to the Hometown High Bridge. More information is available at 570-668-6899.

The Eastern Schuylkill Recreation Commission's Breakfast with Santa will take place 9 a.m. Saturday at the Tamaqua Salvation Army. More information is available at 570-668-6899.

The Victorian Tea will take place at 2 p.m. Saturday at St. John's Lutheran Church, Mauch Chunk Street. It will include a variety of teas, scones, finger sandwiches and cookies, all served on fine china. Entertainment will be provided by Samantha Johnson, granddaughter of Gloria and the late Ken Smulligan. More information is available at 570-668-1880.

Sunday's activities will include the Spirit of Christmas Craft Fair held at the Tamaqua Salvation Army, 105 W. Broad St., from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m., featuring a wide variety of craft vendors. Food also will be available. Additional vendors are welcome. More information is available at 570-668-3268.

Musical entertainment will also be offered in the chapel. Local talent will perform and admission is free.

As darkness approaches, the festival will take on a solemn air with the Tamaqua Tree Lighting Ceremony at 6 p.m. at Depot Square Park. The event will feature Christmas carols by the Tamaqua Area High School. Jazz Chorale and inspirational words from Mayor Chris Morrison. Afterward, the public will be invited to the Tamaqua Ambulance building adjacent to the park for free hot chocolate and cookies.

Winners of the cookie contest, gingerbread house contest and tree decorating contest will be announced. More information is available at 570-668-1880.

The festival taps the talents and skills of organizations such as the Tamaqua Area Community Partnership, Tamaqua Area Chamber of Commerce, Tamaqua Historical Society, Eastern Schuylkill Recreation Commission, Tamaqua Area Faith Fellowship Network and many other groups.

The Tamaqua Spirit of Christmas Festival traces its beginnings to 1994 at the start of the Tamaqua Area 2004 Partnership. The festival grew out of a committee, eventually becoming a separate entity. Committee members represent a diverse cross-section of the community.