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Downtown Gainesville jumps on Christmas early
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In all its lighted garland glory, Christmas came early to downtown Gainesville.

Santa and his train made an appearance at the Eighth Annual Upstairs Downtown Tour & Holiday Open House, Gainesville’s holiday kickoff event. In conjunction, Christmas lights were lit Thursday evening in the downtown area for the first time this holiday season.

Visitors toured restaurants and stores that stayed open past regular business hours while children whispered their holiday wishes to a Victorian-era Santa. Others took horse and carriage rides with Santa around the square.

Even the weather got in the spirit, dropping down to 42 degrees.

The event gave people the chance to meet owners of downtown restaurants and shops. Joe Burnett, executive director of Main Street Gainesville, said that luxury is not possible when visiting corporate retailers. Main Street Gainesville sponsored Thursday night’s event.

"All of our shopkeepers are actually there, not in China, California or wherever the heck the big-boxers are," Burnett said. "(It’s) a chance to get to know them."

People could visit well-established businesses, along with two that have not opened. Inman Perk, due to open by Thanksgiving, is at the old Coffee Shop of Horrors.

People also were able to meet the owner of Scott’s on the Square, slated to open in early December where Hiroba restaurant used to be.

"This basically takes the public behind the scenes," Burnett said of the tour.

Nearly 40 retailers and restaurants dressed up their windows with Christmas decorations and provided food and entertainment for the after-hours event.

"It’s not like a Wal-Mart extended-hour event where it’s just all about selling stuff," Burnett said. "This is about providing an experience."

The event kicked off the Christmas season a week before most get hit with the holiday fever, and that’s what makes the annual event unique, Burnett said.

"Thanksgiving weekend has been given over totally to the big-box retailers," Burnett said. "We didn’t want to be in that mess. We wanted to be something special, something stand-alone."