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Despite near-freezing temperatures, a robust crowd of more than 1,700 turned out for the annual Lighting of the Snowmen Festival at Cornerstone Gardens in Sonoma.

The festival, now in its ninth year, featured live music, Santa photos, holiday movies, wine and beer tasting and crafts for kids.

"I can't believe so many people came out in the cold," said Teresa Raffo, who co-owns Cornerstone Gardens with her husband.

This year, the festival partnered with the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, a nonprofit group that matches Sonoma students with local mentors.

"It's really a day for kids and fun," said Kathy Witkowicki, executive director of the SVMA. Witkowicki said the event was primarily staffed by 50 SVMA volunteers, many accompanied by students they mentor.

"I love the sculptures here," said Hunter Jewett, 10, referring to the artwork peppering the grounds of the gardens. "I like looking at the lanterns and Christmas lights on the buildings."

Jewett, who attended the festival with his mentor, Marck Zuehlsdorff, enjoyed eating popcorn and watching a friend put sprinkles on a gingerbread man.

"I'm so glad we could be a part of this event, and it's such beautiful weather for it," said Zuehlsdorff, an SVMA board member.

Raffo said she chose the SVMA as the nonprofit partner because local schools highly recommended the alliance.

"I love what they're doing with the kids," she said.

The event began in 2004 after David Allen, owner of Artefact Design & Salvage at Cornerstone Gardens, discovered hundreds of decorative snowmen at a factory in Boston.

The factory, which manufactured the snowmen exclusively, was closing, and Allen decided to purchase the stock to use at the gardens.

"(Allen) called us to tell us he had found these snowmen he could use at the gardens," Raffo said. "The event grew from there, and we had almost 3000 people last year."

The Sean Carscadden Trio provided live music during the event, which also featured a beer garden staffed by men clad in traditional lederhosen.

Sonoma resident and SVMA mentor Patrick Galleguillos proudly wore lederhosen while stationed outside the biergarten, saying he enjoyed the opportunity to participate in a community event.

"I grew up in Sonoma County during the 1950s, but left when I was still young," said Galleguillos. "I returned to Sonoma around seven months ago to be with my new wife, and it's like coming home."

Dancers from the Sonoma Conservatory of Dance performed winter selections to the crowd midway through the event.

"It's fun to perform in front of the kids and see their faces," said dancer Isabel Falls. Falls, 16, has danced at the event for the past four years.

The main event commenced around 5:45 p.m., with children scrambling up sculptures to get a good view of the nearly 200 snowmen awaiting light.

Raffo said each year features the snowmen in a new scene. This year's theme featuring acrobatic snowmen balancing on a wire was inspired by a circus that performed at Cornerstone last weekend.

"It's sort of an old fashioned event," said Raffo. "I love that people could celebrate the holidays and appreciate the gardens with the feeling of community."

Visitors can view the gardens and snowmen at Cornerstone Sonoma from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The gardens are located at 23570 Arnold Drive in Sonoma.

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