MANATEE -- Christmas decorations and Hanukkah menorah lights are illuminating homes, churches and synagogues.
There's an aroma of live fir in the air, wafting from the 61st Boys & Girls Clubs of Manatee County Christmas Tree Sale at Westgate Shopping Center, 3900 Manatee Ave. W., Bradenton, and Alpine Christmas Trees on State Road 64 near Walmart and many other lots in the county.
Children of all faiths are tuning up their vocal cords to sing songs in all sorts of upcoming holiday children's shows.
It's definitely holiday time in Manatee County.
First day of Advent
Dedicated members of Manatee United Methodist Church came in Saturday to dress Manatee Methodist, one of Manatee's oldest churches, in Christmas finery for Sunday's first day of Advent.
"Each Sunday we light a candle and think about how Jesus is coming into our lives in various ways," explained the Rev. Sharon Davis. "This is a way we can remember hope, joy, peace and love. We will light a different candle each week."
The volunteers put up an angel tree, a small but tender Nativity scene, an Advent wreath, a special tree dedicated to Jesus Christ, greenery all over the church and even a Christmas mailbox, so people can "send" cards to one another without postage. The postage saved goes to the church's active children's ministry, which buys needed things for children in its neighborhood at 315 15th St. E., Bradenton.
Davis looked up lovingly at the stained glass window depicting Jesus in the front of the sanctuary. It has a special meaning this time of year, she said.
"You can look up and see Jesus as you are leaving the church," Davis said.
The children's choir will perform "Santa Bowed at Christmas" at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 16. Many locals attend Manatee Methodist's famous Outdoor Christmas Eve Candlelight Service at 6 p.m. Dec. 24. But one of the most unusual and important holiday services the church holds is its "Blue Christmas Service," a service for those who are stressed, lonely and hurting, Davis said. That service is 7 p.m. Dec. 21.
"We would love to have anyone who is looking for a home church come to Manatee Methodist because our doors are open to all," Davis said.
Jews and non-Jews alike have seemed to embrace the downtown Bradenton annual Hanukkah menorah candle lighting, which will begin at 6 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Riverwalk Amphitheater, just east of the Green Bridge on the Riverwalk. It's free, and bringing lawn chairs is recommended.
"I can't answer for all Jewish households, but I can say that growing up, at least for me, you would see a Hanukkah menorah in the window of a Jewish household, of course adding a candle for each night," said Sandy Clark of Temple Beth El. "As my son grew, you began to see more and more places of business selling Hanukkah decorations to make the holiday bright and festive and so individual households, including my own, began decorating with banners and lights and dreidels, etc.
"Seeing the city of Bradenton putting up a menorah and Star of David downtown means to me, and I believe to the members of Temple Beth El, recognition of our faith," Clark said.
Hanukkah is the "holiday of light," the holiday of having only enough oil to light the temple for one night last for eight nights, Clark added.
The downtown event will feature an explanation of the Hanukkah holiday, candle lighting, music by Temple Beth El musicians and songs by cantor Alan Cohn.
Oh, Christmas tree
Larry and Junita St. Esprit of Sarasota and their grandchildren, Alyssa, 11, and Julian, 8, got their live Christmas tree Sunday from Alpine Christmas Trees, the same place where Matt and Lynn Jones of Bradenton and their kids, Lila, 15, Chance, 12, and Kage, 10, got theirs.
"We always buy a fresh tree and we will bring it home and decorate it tonight," said Lynn Jones, who is a kindergarten teacher at Bashaw Elementary School on Morgan Johnson Road in Bradenton.
"We'll get ours up on a stand and leave it sit for the week and decorate it next weekend," Junita St. Esprit said. "We wait till all the branches fall and it fills out."
Lynn Jones would like for Christmas a vacation that doesn't involve an amusement park. Junita St. Esprit would like a Fitbit. Larry St. Esprit just wants everyone to be happy. Lila Jones would like a new smart phone but she isn't getting it, her mom said, Chance wants video games, and Kage wants a new computer, a tablet and a few more electronics, he said.
"Cha-ching," Lynn Jones said with a grin.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter@RichardDymond.