By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
Santa and Mrs. Claus joined Mayor Nancy R. Rossi and very special guest Gabriella “Gabby” Murillo to light the Christmas tree on the Green during the annual holiday kickoff Saturday.
After arriving to the Main Street side of the Green on the West Haven Fire Department’s 1935 Mack pump firetruck, Santa and Mrs. Claus were escorted to the nearby stage by the West Haven High School and Seahawks cheerleading teams to the sound of applause and shouts of glee from several hundred merrymakers who braved the bitter cold.
Before the lighting of the tree, which is encircled by five smaller evergreen trees adorned with fluorescent-colored lights, Rossi recognized Murillo, who strolled in on a motorized wheelchair to enthusiastic applause from the all-ages crowd.
Beside the stage, Murillo was surrounded by her parents, Eric and Amanda Murillo, and her sister Jennifer Maurutis, 32. Sisters Amanda Murillo, 34, and Cassie Murillo, 25, were unable to attend.
Gabby Murillo is back home in West Haven — the first time the Murillos have all been together since she was paralyzed from the neck down in a June car crash while embarking on her dream internship at Disney World.
On June 16, Murillo was struck by a truck while driving in Orlando, Florida, causing spinal damage beyond repair. She had reportedly been hit at full speed by a drunk driver while she was stopped at a red light with a friend.
Murillo’s hometown immediately rallied around the 22-year-old, holding multiple “Gabby Strong” fundraisers large and small to help her family pay for the incalculable medical and other expenses that have accompanied her recovery, including a specialized wheelchair, an addition to the family’s Hickory Street home and a handicapped-accessible vehicle.
Rossi, who was accompanied onstage by her 9-year-old grandson, Arthur Rossi, said Murillo’s strength, determination and fighting spirit is a source of inspiration for her close-knit family, the community and her legion of friends, who have all pledged their unwavering support for her continued progress.
The holiday festival opened at 2 p.m. with Christmas music, food trucks, face painting, train rides and wreath decorating, as well as craft and artisan vendors.
It was presented by the city, the First Congregational Church of West Haven and West Haven United, an organization aimed at bringing the city’s volunteer groups together.
Lou Esposito, Rossi’s executive assistant, served as the master of ceremonies for the six-hour event, which featured a cast of costumed Christmas characters that roamed the Green.
The festivities continued into the afternoon with the opening of Santa’s village and eight craft stations, where children decorated wooden ornaments, wrote letters to Santa, and made cards for U.S. troops overseas and those at the Veterans Affairs Hospital on Campbell Avenue.
West Haven High junior Nora E. Mullins sang the national anthem, and the school’s Drama Club performed a holiday play.
The ceremony continued with performances by the West Haven High dance team, holiday carols sung by the St. Lawrence School chorus and performances by the Top Hat Dance Academy.
Cheerleaders of the West Haven High varsity and junior varsity teams and Seahawks JV team performed a medley of game day cheers, followed by Yuletide classics sung by the Bailey Middle School chorus and a singalong led by Victorian carolers.
Before their long sleigh ride back to the North Pole, Santa and Mrs. Claus posed for snapshots in their workshop. Organizers offered the photos with Santa as a free digital download online.
People can view and download their photos on the city’s Flickr page at https://goo.gl/EkLxZz. The internet address is case sensitive.
Just steps from Santa’s workshop, boys and girls dropped off their wish lists at St. Nick’s official U.S. Postal Service mailbox.
Huge electric snowflakes decorated The John C. Ireland Bandstand, and Victorian streetlamps bedecked with angels blowing on trumpets illuminated the walkways.
The decorated Green also included an inflatable snow globe that kids went in and had their pictures taken.
Along with hayrides, youngsters rode on a vintage firetruck from the West Shore Fire Department. They also rode on the Roaming Railroad, a trackless train sponsored by the West Haven PTA Council.
People brought nonperishable items for the West Haven Emergency Assistance Task Force, which provides food for residents in need.
Volunteers from the West Haven Chamber of Commerce handed out free hot chocolate, and vendors sold food and novelties.
The vendors included the First Congregational Church and Franco’s Fried Dough-Licious and Ted’s Steam Machine food trucks.
Also, volunteers from West Haven United sold hot apple cider, coffee and hot chocolate.
After the lighting, the sounds of the holiday season filled the air with rock ’n’ roll renditions of Christmas favorites by bands from The Rock House School of Music, followed by a holiday-themed concert by Off the Hook, “Connecticut’s premier party band.”