Santa Claus and more than 400 of his closest friends helped Mount Olive kick off the Christmas season Friday evening at the annual Christmas Open House.

The event was put on by the Mount Olive Area Chamber of Commerce, town, and sponsored by Mount Olive Family Medicine Center.

At 6 :30 p.m. Mayor Ray McDonald Sr., who served as grand marshal for Saturday morning's parade, and Julie Beck, Chamber president, gave a welcome and issued Christmas greetings in front of Mount Olive Town Hall.

"This is our way of kicking off the Christmas season in Mount Olive, Beck said. "It is always so great to look out here and see so many people coming out here and enjoying this event.

"We encourage you to have a good time tonight and enjoy all of the festivities."

McDonald, who called on mayor-elect Joe Scott to help, then hit the switch to light up the town tower.

McDonald reminded the audience of the meaning of Christmas.

"The kids right now love Santa Claus," he said. "But as they get older they are really going to find out what Christmas is all about. Mount Olive has always had a very good Christmas celebration."

Scott encouraged those in the crowd to mingle and to have a good time.

Following the tower lighting, students from Mrs. Robin's Academy of Dance performed several dance routines,

After the dancers wrapped up their routine, the audience was invited to Center Street where children could write a letter to Santa Claus and visit with him at the Kommunikate Plus office.

Children ages 12 and younger could sign up for a chance to be the Christmas parade junior grand marshal.

Sisters Katherine Throm, 5, and Karen Throm, 12, were selected as junior grand marshals. They rode with Santa in the parade.

Children and adults dressed up as a Christmas tree, snowman or penguin and took photographs in front of the University of Mount Olive offices.

The Friends of the Parks Pickle Train provided rides up and down Center Street, while a hayride was provided by the Boy Scouts.

Those attending could compete in a scavenger hunt for a chance to win prizes. They could vote for their favorite downtown business that had the best Christmas decorations.

Free doughnuts, cookies and apple cider were served, and several merchants stayed open late offering sales.