KENSINGTON - Santa Claus wasn't on the official guest list. But about 50 of his impersonators showed up as this Washington suburb - whose officials did not invite the bearded guy to its festivities - held its annual holiday tree-lighting yesterday.
Hundreds of people, and a few apparent grinches basking in an accompanying media frenzy, turned it all into a raucous and at times un-Christmaslike affair for the 1,700 residents of the Montgomery County town.
Santa wasn't invited, thanks to a unanimous vote Oct. 29 by the four-member Town council to exclude him because some residents - two families, said Mayor Lynn Raufaste - found the symbolism offensive and the town wanted to focus more on patriotism and the uniformed "heroes" who responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Fueled by broadcast reports and talk show ridicule over the past week, the town received enormous publicity across the nation and likely its biggest tree-lighting turnout - of Santas, residents and protesters.
Two protesters made the Santa decision an issue of "religious bigotry," holding up a banner and handing out leaflets blaming Jews for objecting to his presence.
And there were others who were simply Santa supporters, chanting, "No Santa, No Peace!" Some carried signs declaring, "Grinch for Mayor," "Mean Spirited Arrogant Santa Hating Liberals" and "PC = Stupid."
"It's taking down a tradition," said 12-year-old Zak A. Kahn of Kensington. "Jewish people don't have to come. I'm Jewish. But this is such a joyous time."
Close to 50 Santa impersonators were prancing in the crowd, some with St. Nickish waistlines, and a couple of them sporting Grinch masks - from the story of How the Grinch Stole Christmas - instead of beards.
The Santas merrily sang traditional Christmas songs, patted youngsters on their heads and tossed out candy canes.
"This whole thing is ludicrous," said Santa impersonator Fred S. Hass, who didn't need to visit a costume shop for his white beard. "Santa Claus is not a religious figure," added Hass, 62, a Kensington native whose fuzzy white trimming is laced with streaks of gray.
Santa has been a traditional figure of Kensington Christmas past - even if not everyone viewed him in Christmas terms.
"To some, he is the `Winter Man,'" said Kensingtonian Ksenia Belkin, who dressed warmly for the evening, but not in a Santa suit. "Every country has something, and they call it different."
And Kriss Kringle, St. Nick, Santa Claus and the Winter Man all showed up, cheered on by the crowd.
They arrived early for the ceremonies outside the old brick town hall at Armory Avenue and Mitchell Street, where the tree - a towering 50-foot fir - was planted about two decades ago and continues to grow.
A group of 24 fathers in Santa suits marched through the streets to Town Hall, where they convened to sing traditional Christmas carols.
"I was away on business when my wife called me and said, `I've organized all the dads in the neighborhood to get together,'" said Kevin Greany, one of the red-and-white Santa-pops.
Greany said that his children are young but that he and his wife have tried explaining the dispute behind this year's tree-lighting.
"The kids were thrilled to see all the Santa Clauses," said James E. Mollenauer, who watched the proceedings with his wife and 4-year-old son. "It went over [the kids'] heads, thankfully."
Two men identifying themselves as Bill White and James B. MacArthur were part of the dispute - holding a 10-by-5-foot sign that read: "If Jews can ban Santa, why can't we ban Jews?"
The two were ordered by police to move from the sidewalk and take their large sign across the street.
But the moment they started to move the sign, a teen in a Santa suit leapt toward them and ripped down the sign, answering the chants from the red-and-white crowd: "Take it down! Take it down!"
The boy held on to the sign as he was tackled by Montgomery County police officers and whisked away. A Police Department spokeswoman last night said no arrest was made.
Then, the closest thing to an official Santa arrived to the siren blare of several firetrucks. It was a costumed Ken Forti, 57, a member of the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department, which had told the council Thursday night that - invited or not - Santa was on his way.
Standing atop a hook-and-ladder truck, Forti-Claus waved to the cheering crowd.
Ultimately, attention turned to the tree, which was draped in strands of red, white and blue lights.
Mayor Raufaste delivered a speech honoring men and women who serve the public: police, firefighters, postal workers and the military, and she - not Santa - flipped the switch to light the tree.
But even then, grumbling could be heard. "It wasn't an agenda item; it was just done," said former Kensington Mayor Jayne H. Plank about the council's vote to keep Santa away. "Our traditions shouldn't take second place. I'm glad the Santas came, and I hope the council got a message."
Raufaste's term is nearing its end, and an election is scheduled for June. Also, two council seats will open up. Plank said she doesn't know what's going to happen then.
But one resident said she wouldn't be surprised to see Santa on the ballot.