LEWISTON — In Dufresne Plaza, just after dark, a young girl stares up at the tall conifer lit up just moments ago.
"How tall is it, Mommy?" she asks.
"I don't know, sweetie. It's pretty tall."
The girl continues to stare.
"It's a Christmas tree, right?"
"That's right. It's a Christmas tree."
You can understand the girl's confusion.
There were Christmas carols and reindeer and all the usual trimmings at the Wednesday night Parade of Lights. What was missing was the snow and biting cold that usually accompanies the revelers on the long walk from one side of the river to the other. It looked a lot like Christmas but with temperatures up near 50 degrees, it felt more like a mild spring night.
It was freakishly warm, yes. But did that stop anyone from celebrating the holidays in all the usual ways? No, it did not.
Thousands crammed the streets, the sidewalks and plazas on both sides of the Androscoggin River as the parade made its way down Lisbon Street, across the James B. Longley Memorial Bridge and into Festival Plaza in Auburn. For the first time anyone could remember, it was shoulder to shoulder all along the parade route.
"Biggest crowd I've ever seen out here for this," Mayor Larry Gilbert said. "Easily."
So big that an hour in, vendors were out of hot chocolate on both sides of the bridge. In Auburn, visitors went through 1,000 cups before cocoa supplies dried up, according to one grumpy mother who came away empty-handed.
No one had the exact figures, or even an educated guess on the crowd size. Not even Lewiston Community Relations Coordinator Dottie Perham-Whittier, who keeps track of everything.
"It's the warm weather," she said. "I'm sure that contributed to it."
No question about it. Very few people bothered to put on hats and mittens as they normally do for the parade. Some didn't even bother with coats.
On Lisbon Street in Lewiston, Lee Burgess was one of those. He stood on the sidewalk with a video camera, waiting for the parade to come his way. No coat or even sleeves — just a T-shirt on the night before the start of December.
"I've been out here about an hour," he said. "I'm not cold at all. When it gets down below 45 degrees, then I'll put a coat on."
It was 46 degrees in Lewiston when the parade got under way, roughly double what the temperature has been in previous years.
The parade always draws respectable crowds, organizers say. Parents bring kids down to watch the tree-lighting in Lewiston and then follow the parade over to Auburn to wait for Santa.
Making it a two-city celebration, said Auburn Mayor Dick Gleason, "was the smartest thing we've ever done."
Speaking of Santa, rumors rippled through the crowd in Festival Plaza at about 7 p.m. The jolly one was said to be getting close. He might be there at any second, was the general idea.
If you thought the warm weather diminished that Christmas feeling, you probably changed your mind around the time of Santa's arrival. Kids began to squeal. They climbed up onto their father's shoulders or climbed the nearest lamp post.
The crowd shifted closer to the street where Santa would soon step from his sleigh. Every wide-eyed child in the plaza wanted to get as close as possible for this monumental moment.
And a few adults, too.
"Oh, you caught me," said Cherilee Budrick, who was seen squirming into position to take a photograph of herself with Santa. "I wanted to get a picture for Facebook to show my parents. I'm never going to hear the end of this."
The red-faced Auburn woman worried needlessly. Within minutes, other full-grown adults were vying for time with Santa. The mayors from both cities were sitting on the great man's lap. More and more as the night progressed, it looked a lot like Christmas, indeed.