Amherst celebrates the annual lighting of the Merry Maple Article by Alvin Buyinza & photos by Caroline O'Connor and Alvin Buyinza

As Christmas is just around the corner, the town of Amherst kicked off the holiday season with their annual lighting of the Merry Maple.

Hundreds of families came out in the snow to enjoy fire-station open house tours, hayrides, crafts, storytelling and a live performance from the Amherst Regional High School Chorale and Hurricane Singers, all leading up to a surprise visit from Santa and the lighting of the town’s Merry Maple.

The event, hosted by both the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce and the Amherst Business Improvement District, has been a staple of the holiday season for the town since the 1970s. This year marks its 43rd anniversary.

“It’s a very sweet event that brings that community together in song and in light because we get to light the trees,” said Victoria Cliche, a resident of Leverett.

Cliche has been going to the Merry Maple celebrations for six years and attended this year to support her 17-year-old son who sang in the ARHS chorale performance.

Starting promptly at 3 p.m., a few families with small children from the Amherst area visited the local fire station on North Pleasant Street where they were greeted with warm smiles from local fire fighters. Children were given plastic firefighter helmets to wear and were encouraged to climb in the fire trucks parked outside.

Hayrides, live Christmas performances and a surprise from everyone’s favorite North Pole resident made Friday night.

Later in the day several families and small children lined-up in a parking lot downtown for free hayrides offered by the Muddy Brook Farm, a local equine facility. Dozens of children hopped inside the horse-driven carriages for a ride.

For some families this was an annual tradition, but for others it was a first-time experience.

“We’ve never been on the hayride,” said Kelly Anne McKeown, a resident of Amherst, “but we do like the Santa and the marching band, that’s kind of the highlight for us.”

McKeown came to the hayride with her two children Finn McKeown, 6, and Addie McKeown, 4, who both rushed in excitement toward the carriage once it stopped.

Additionally, children were encouraged to make art projects and were entertained with stories at the Amherst History Museum.

While children got free rides from horses and made arts and craft projects, amongst the steps of the town hall were the ARHS Chorale and Hurricane Singers who decided to entertain a crowd of over 200 people with Christmas carols.

At 5 p.m., the Merry Maple tree burst with bright lights, illuminating Amherst Common and engendering a loud applause from the crowd. Teams of children rushed toward the tree, while others wished to touch the bright lights that entangled the bark and branches.

Shortly after the excitement of the lit Maple tree quieted down, police officers cleared the streets and the parking lots to make way for the main event – Santa Claus.

Amherst is headed toward it’s 43rd year celebrating the annual tradition

Coming down North Pleasant Street on top of a decorated ladder of a fire truck was the District Attorney David Sullivan dressed as Santa Claus, who was met with a large cheers and cries of excitement.

Members of the community had a chance to shake hands and even hug Santa after the truck stopped. Children wasted no time at all running up to the holiday figure and telling him what they wanted for Christmas.

Immediately following the fire truck was the University of Massachusetts Marching Band dressed in red and green colors while playing the UMass “fight song,” with decorated instruments.

Sara Wright, a resident of Northampton said she really likes the UMass Marching Band and the songs they choose to play.

Wright has been coming the annual Merry Maple lighting for 12 years now, and this year decided to come along with her daughter, Kim and grandson, Harry.

“They decorate their instruments,” she continued, “they’re so festive, and the students look great, they really enjoy playing, it’s a great way to start the season.”

Alvin Buyinza can be reached at abuyinza@umass.edu and followed on Twitter at @abuyinza_news.

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