THE countdown to Christmas began in fine style on Friday when Santa Claus arrived to turn on Alton’s festive lights.

Despite the rain, the Market Square was packed for the annual ceremony organised by Alton Town Council which began with some fun and antics courtesy of Holybourne Theatre who gave the audience a taste of their forthcoming pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk.

Leading the troop were players Tom Gray and Stephen Dunne, accompanied by members of the Holybourne Youth Theatre who sang some numbers from the show, which takes place over the last two weekends in January and the first two weekends in February.

The players were followed onto the mobile stage by musicians from Alton’s Salvation Army Band playing traditional carols, paving the way for yet more musical entertainment introduced by Alton town crier Stan Whitcher and presented by compere Paul Le Feuvre resplendent in his Christmas jersey.

Following a welcome by Alton mayor Pam Jones, the programme continued with carols sung by the newly-formed Holybourne Singers Young Voices Choir, led by Jonathan Upfold. Dressed in Christmas hats, the young singers gave a spirited first performance, gaining in confidence as the crowd responded enthusiastically to their efforts.

The mayor’s chaplain, the Reverend Keith Underhill, then stepped onto the stage to tell the story of the Christmas cracker. It was invented in 1847, almost by accident, by London sweet maker Tom Smith. It was a simple idea which has become an integral part of British celebration and tradition which still continues today.

Having delighted the audience with some cracker jokes, Rev Underhill likened the different parts of the cracker to the Christmas story – the colourful outside being Mary, at the heart of all that goes on; the cardboard tube representing the support and stability offered by Joseph; the snap and bang the surprise and shock the shepherds received when all those angels suddenly appeared; while Jesus would be the gift inside.

And the slip of paper – the motto or joke – would represent the message of peace on Earth that God took on human form to come and live in our world.

“For some that may seem like a joke, a fool’s errand, yet this is nothing more than the demonstration of God’s love for all people, so that even in the midst of darkness there is light, in the midst of despair there is hope, and in the midst of death there is life,” said Rev Underhill.

He, and all those taking part, were thanked by the mayor who, accompanied by a lively rendition of Jingle Bells and amidst mounting excitement, led the assembled crowd in scouring the roofs and windows overlooking the Market Square to see who could spot Santa with his red hat and coat, waving from a casement under the eaves of The Market Hotel.

A loud cheer went up as the children spotted the man they had been waiting for, and two minutes later the familiar white beared fellow appeared, escorted onto the stage by a member of the Lions Club of Alton.

There he joined the mayor for the traditional countdown, which heralded the pressing of the switch to light up The Square in seasonal red and green, with the Christmas tree, sponsored once again this year by PJ Grace, Commercial and Domestic Garden Maintenance, clad in sparkling white.

Following Santa’s departure, the festivities continued with fair rides for the children provided by Bernice Wall, and there was an opportunity also to enjoy a late-night Christmas shopping experience staged by members of Alton Matters.

* The next late-night shopping event is tomorrow when participating shops will be open until 8pm.