Hundreds usher in holiday season at Winter Lights event in downtown Santa Rosa

Three-year-old Neena Johnston stood in line at Old Courthouse Square on Friday night to meet Santa Claus - so excited that she could barely keep still.

“We’ve been talking about Santa for three weeks,” said her mother, Dheepa Johnston. “We’re having a really fun time.”

The Johnston family were among hundreds of people who came to downtown Santa Rosa

for Winter Lights, the annual tree lighting event sponsored by the Santa Rosa Metro Chamber of Commerce. The event, held the day after Thanksgiving, celebrated the start of the holiday season. It featured dance performances, music, food trucks and jumping castles for kids.

A man dressed as Santa Claus arrived on a Santa Rosa Fire Department engine, and took photos with kids in a nearby booth.

Neena had a big smile on her face as she waited for her turn to meet Santa. She kept turning around to wave at him, bouncing up and down as she got closer and closer to the front of the line. Her father, Ben Johnston, reminded her to tell Santa what she wanted for Christmas this year - a rainbow and a Chelsea doll.

“It’s a big ask,” he said of the rainbow.

The event wasn’t just for kids. Santa Rosa resident Ed Dempsey comes to the tree lighting ceremony every year. On Friday, he donned a Christmas tree hat, with colorful string lights that were lit.

Dempsey said he loves the event because it brings the community together, which he felt was especially important in light of the recent Kincade fire.

“It’s good to see people out here celebrating,” he said. “It’s just good to see joy in Santa Rosa.”

Forestville resident Sarah Lee volunteered to dress as Mrs. Claus for the second year in a row. Lee makes toys for a living, so she felt like this was the most fitting volunteer position for her.

In a tent on the square, Lee read stories aloud to kids and helped them write their Christmas wish list letters to Santa. She said she loves the annual celebration, adding that she hoped that it makes everyone feel part of the community.

Snoopy also made an appearance, posing for photos with kids. Santa Rosa firefighters, after driving Santa downtown, also took photos with people who thanked them for their service.

Roberta Catala of Santa Rosa was initially going to go to San Francisco with her daughter for the evening. But when they found out first responders would be coming to the Winter Lights event, they wanted to come to show their support.

At one point, people on the square each lit a candle to remember those who died in the last year, and to express gratitude for each other’s loved ones. After all the candles were lit, the countdown began to light up a nearby tree with thousands of color-changing LED lights.

“It brings us all together and gives us strength,” Catala said of the event. “I’m proud to live here.”

You can reach Staff Writer Chantelle Lee at 707-521-5337 or On Twitter @ChantelleHLee.

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