When his sleigh comes 'round the corner and begins its circle of Diamond Park during the annual Light Up Meadville on Friday, Bill Stumpf will be dressed in a familiar red-and-white suit, wearing black boots and belt and perhaps even releasing the occasional “Ho, ho, ho” from the bottom of his cookie-fed belly. In fact, he'll perform any number of actions associated with a certain well-known Christmas character. One thing he won’t be doing, however, is merely playing a role.
“I never play Santa,” Stumpf said from the home he uses in Titusville when he’s not tending to North Pole-related responsibilities.
Such responsibilities are serious business, according to Stumpf, and they go well beyond illuminating the lights on the tree in the gazebo and elsewhere.
“Santa is about bringing joy and happiness and about unconditional love,” he said. “My role in Light Up night is to not only light up the park but to light up the joy in children’s eyes.”
Holiday enlightenment comes to the city Friday with Light Up Meadville. Activities begin at 5 p.m. and stretch from the Market House through the First Friday downtown businesses that will remain open into the evening and over to Diamond Park, where Christmas music begins at 5:30.
When the tree-lighting ceremony begins at 6, Mayor LeRoy Stearns will be there to issue an official proclamation. It’s a duty he has performed before, but it never gets old.
“I really like seeing it ... the streets full of people and people in good moods,” Stearns said. “I’m hoping we’ll have a little snow on the ground, especially for the carriage rides.”
Like many who gather in Diamond Park, Stearns will head to the Market House after the Diamond Park ceremony. While he’s helping with the carriage rides, others will be crowding in and around the iconic 1870 structure.
“It’s the busiest ‘people night’ of the year at the Market House,” Market Master Alice Sjolander said, explaining that the market typically sees more sales on Dec. 23 due to last-minute shoppers but is at its most crowded for Light Up night. “You can't even move in here.”
In addition to the carriage rides outside and the live dulcimer music and free cookies and hot chocolate inside, Sjolander said, this year more Market House vendors than ever will be on hand with samples of their wares.
The Market House likely won’t be the only building crowded with those in the holiday spirit. The Old Post Office building, 296 Chestnut St., will host Santa following the tree-lighting ceremony in Diamond Park.
After staging Santa’s one-on-ones at the Downtown Mall for a number of years and at the former Shops @the Bank, Santa moved to The Academy Theatre in recent years. A performance last year sent Santa to the Tarr mansion on Diamond Park, according to Josh Sherretts, president of the Crawford County Historical Society.
This year, the musical “Annie” is on stage at the Academy, so Santa will set up shop down Chestnut Street in the lobby of the Old Post Office. Plenty of cookies and candy canes will be on hand, and for good reason, according to Stumpf, who — coincidentally — will also be there and said he has “never met a cookie I didn’t like.”
“Santa consumes so many cookies for the calories,” Stumpf said. “When you’re in an open sleigh, traveling at hundreds of miles per hour, the wind chill is brutal. The more cookies, the more calories to help stay warm.”
Stumpf, a retired teacher who described his age as “old as my tongue and a little older than my teeth,” has been lighting up Meadville for about five years.
“I enjoy every minute of it,” he said. “Just to see children’s eyes light up and hear them calling and waving. It helps me and it helps to bring the spirit of Christmas.
“That’s what Santa Claus is — he’s the spirit of Christmas.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.