It hardly was a silent night in Hays on Friday as the community welcomed the Christmas spirit with a downtown tree lighting, winter art walk and historical holiday festivities at the historical museum and the fort.
Early in the evening, people milled about Union Pacific Plaza in short sleeves and shorts after an unseasonably high of 61 degrees. Children joined Kael Bloom, creative arts director at Celebration Community Church, in singing Christmas carols. Offerings of hot chocolate, coffee and apple cider throughout the events gave some warmth as temperatures dipped into the 40s after sunset.
Shortly before 6 p.m. Santa and Mrs. Claus arrived at the plaza and a line formed quickly for children excited share what they want for Christmas and receive a candy cane as parents took pictures and video with their cell phones.
At 6 p.m., Sara Bloom, director of Downtown Hays Development Corp., stepped up to begin the tree-lighting ceremony. The tree was made possible by Hays resident Hazel Dick 28 years ago, Bloom told the crowd. Only 8 feet tall when planted, the tree towers above nearby buildings.
“I feel like this tree, like our downtown, like this community, has also grown,” Bloom said, noting crews had to raise the star by 4 feet from its height last year.
“This Christmas season let’s remember to shop and support local. Let’s allow this tree to remind us of the difference one person can make and the impact we all have on the growth on the Hays community,” she said.
Bloom led the crowd in a countdown to light the tree, but for the second year in a row it failed to light immediately. The problem was fixed after a few moments though, eliciting a big cheer from the crowd.
Down Main Street, at the Ellis County Historical Society, volunteers prepared for the Christmas Open House featuring the exhibit Merry Christmas Memories from the Fifties. The Ellis Junior Honor Choir of fourth, fifth and sixth-graders led by Shawn DeMuth opened the event, singing holiday favorites for a crowd in the old stone church as others waiting outside for carriage rides from Big Creek Horse and Carriage.
At Historic Fort Hays the lights weren’t as bright as the electric ones downtown as volunteers demonstrated how the holiday was celebrated in the fort’s active days. In the parlor of one of the officer’s quarters, lit by only two gas lamps, Linda Riedel and Marci Pray invited children to help decorate the tree.
In the 1880s, Riedel said, trees were often decorated with ornaments made from what was available such as strips of colorful ribbons, paper, rope or even grasses weaved together.
“They did have the stockings,” she said, pointing out several white socks hanging from the mantel.
Emily Rowland made her first visit to the fort Friday night. She’s from Wichita and is a student at Fort Hays State University.
“I love history,” she said.
She said her daughter Evelyn, 2.5, had fun going around the site, where re-enactors around campfires offered hot apple cider and fried apples. They had also enjoyed the tree lighting and carriage rides earlier downtown, she said.
Rowland said she could imagine herself living in the era of the fort. She comes from a family of 10, she said, and her mother always makes sure everyone shuts off their phones when they visit for the holidays.
“I love cooking, so cooking from scratch would be awesome,” she said.
In the guardhouse, the celebration was more lively as a group of string and guitar players gathered for a jam session. The eight are alumni of the Western Kansas String Academy, a community youth music program that was sponsored by FHSU.
The academy hasn’t been around since about 2010, but the former students look forward to getting together with their teacher, Peggy Anschutz, every year at the fort’s Christmas Past, they said.
On violins, cello and guitar they played holiday and popular music from the past like “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean,” “Yellow Rose of Texas” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and “Garry Owen,” an Irish song adopted by Gen. George Armstrong Custer as the regimental song of the 7th Cavalry, which was stationed at Fort Hays.
“It’s just fun. It’s nice to, like, once a year get together again,” said Trinity Callais.
“We only play these songs once, twice a year. That we all know them still is great,” Carl Rorstrom said. Now 16, he was 6 when he started with the string academy.
The group doesn’t get together for rehearsals prior to the fort’s event.
“We just wing it,” Hans Rorstrom said.
Other members of the group Friday night were Eric Rorstrum, Tristan and Tanner Callais, Marie Reveles and Tom Drabkin.