(HELENA) The holiday season officially got underway in Helena Friday night with the annual Parade of Lights.

The parade has been a tradition in downtown Helena for more than 20 years. Many of the people who watch come back year after year.

“We’ve lived in Helena for 14 years, so I think we’ve only missed a few,” said Judy Merickel.

Merickel and Maren Rawlings were introducing relatives from Minnesota to the parade. They were among hundreds of people who lined Last Chance Gulch as the floats and other entries passed by.

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Merickel said young Maren’s favorite parts were the Christmas lights and seeing Santa Claus.

The parade was organized by Downtown Helena and the Helena Business Improvement District. Cindy Stevens, the BID’s project manager, said at least 23 entries took part in the parade – more than they initially expected.

Those looking for Santa Claus had plenty of choices, from the traditional version riding a sleigh to others on all-terrain vehicles and motorcycles. Other entries were more unconventional, including a UFO and the Montana Ghostbusters.

Several city commissioners and their families rode on a float being pulled by the Helena Fire Department. Commissioner Andres Haladay had his children with him.

“It’s a beautiful night to welcome out the community, the day after Thanksgiving, to kickoff the holiday season,” Haladay said.

It might not have felt quite like the holidays. Much of Helena’s snow had melted after days of mild temperatures. But the lack of winter weather didn’t dampen the enthusiasm.

“A couple years ago, it was about negative 2, so I think we’ll take this for welcoming out everybody,” said Haladay.

The parade wrapped up with a dramatic conclusion: the lighting of the Helena Fire Tower. Organizers borrowed floodlights from the local Caterpillar equipment dealer to illuminate the historic structure.

For the second year in a row, organizers weren’t able to hang Christmas lights on the tower. City leaders say it’s unsafe, after a suspicious fire in August 2016 damaged some of the support beams.

But BID leaders said they’re hopeful the tower will be repaired by next year, and they’ll be able to return to the traditional way of lighting it up.

In the meantime, the alternate illumination was a fitting finale to an event that keeps bringing people back.

“We just know this is a fun tradition, and we try to make it every year,” said Merickel.

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