Like a scene ripped from a timeless holiday classic, there was Deputy Mayor Thomas Graziano, proudly passing out bags of a holiday favorite —chestnuts roasted over an open fire.
There was a glow as warm as those embers to the entire night, as an estimated 3,000 people joined to sing carols, play games, make crafts, enjoy hot chocolate and usher in the holiday magic in Belleville.
The annual Winter Festival and Christmas Tree Lighting Spectacular was bigger, better and brighter than ever. The event was free, with support through the municipality, Board of Education, the Michael A. Melham Civic Association and other generous community sponsors.
Santa, taking a break from taking wish lists from boys and girls of all ages, pushed the plunger to light the 60-foot-high Christmas tree at Belleville High School.
The lights twinkled as children played in the bouncy house area and families enjoyed horse-drawn carriage rides up and down Passaic Avenue. Others checked out the petting zoo, where one woman cradled a duck where others were playing with the goats.
Several organizations, community groups and municipal agencies also participated in the Winter Festival, sharing information with residents and seeking volunteers.
The school district sold Christmas tree ornaments, garden flags and potholders created by the students in the Life Skills Program.
The Belleville Police Department passed out coffee, cookies and hot dogs, while the Belleville Fire Department gave away candy canes and small holiday-themed gifts.
“You can feel the warmth of the community here tonight,” Mayor Michael A. Melham, who welcomed festival-goers to warm up around two fire pits that his association assembled and maintained through the night, said. “This night is about making spirits bright. Thanks to our collaboration with the Belleville School District, this event fills hearts with the holiday spirit.”
Councilmembers Naomy DePeña and Vinny Cozzarelli also participated in the Winter Festival, greeting residents and spreading holiday cheer. Meanwhile, Graziano was focused on handing out the roasted chestnuts, a popular staple of the event.
The deputy mayor soaked 75 pounds of chestnuts for three hours before the event, then sliced each one open before putting them on the grill to roast until they were soft and emitted a sweet, smoky scent. Chestnuts are a traditional staple at Graziano holiday dinners, usually washed down with an espresso between dinner and dessert.
Handing them out to festival-goers was a family affair. The deputy mayor’s sister and brother-in-law, Judy and Michael Catena, helped out. So did a longtime family friend, Jeanne DiPasquale Lombardi.
“This is what it’s all about,” Graziano, handing out brown paper bags filled with steaming hot chestnuts, said. “Belleville is about family, and tonight, we are one big, happy family.”