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Downtown Clayton awash in holiday spirit

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CLAYTON — Whether it’s community festivities, waterfront restaurants or souvenir shops, this village never does anything halfway.

The Clayton Opera House was transformed into Santa Central on Saturday for Clayton’s holiday bash, and its standing-room-only crowd was just one example of the village’s holiday spirit.

Organizers hosted activities all day long: crafts at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, 521 James St.; horse-pulled carriage rides outside Hawn Memorial Library, 220 John St.; and visits with Santa at the Clayton Opera House, 405 Riverside Drive.

The evening was punctuated by the village’s 50th annual holiday parade and fireworks.

Saturday night at the opera house, about 20 antsy youngsters waited in line to give letters addressed to Santa to an elf wearing striped socks, suspenders, a funny hat and eye shadow. A sparkling button on his shirt read: “OFFICIAL ELF.”

Nine-year-old Matthew C. Paquin — who stood taller in line than his two younger brothers — was surprised by the bold elf, who used lingo from the North Pole. After enclosing Matthew’s letter in an envelope, he weighed it in ounces on a “naughty or nice” scale.

“We have to get you over 0.9 to get you a rating of nice this year, and right now, it’s saying you’ve been only halfway nice,” the elf said.

Matthew seemed only slightly amused. The theatrical elf suddenly began singing a pop Christmas song, urging the boy to recite the words to raise his score for Santa. “Grandma got run over by a reindeer!”

After placing his stamped letter inside the “Mr. and Mrs. Claus” mailbox, Matthew joined his parents and brothers, Connor M., 4, and Luke P., 7. The Paquin family made the trip from Stone Mills to attend the Santa outing for the first time.

Though Matthew stubbornly refused to reveal his wish list, Connor said he asked Santa for an electric guitar and magic sword, while Luke wanted “spy gear” toys. Their mother, Stephanie L. Paquin, grew up in the village and said she has been impressed by how much the community has grown. Gatherings are hosted year-round by the Thousand Islands Performing Arts Council at the opera house and by the 1000 Islands-Clayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s definitely a lot busier now,” Mrs. Paquin said. As a family, “we try to make a trip here once a week. Businesses are staying open later in the night.”

Disguised as the elf was Barry Pratt, manager of the opera house, who said Clayton’s businesses downtown are flourishing.

“Clayton is the ‘Mayberry’ of Northern New York, and people around here are starting to find out about us,” Mr. Pratt said. “Everyone’s friendly, and we have high-quality shops and restaurants. We just had one of the busiest summers on record.”

Whereas eateries on the waterfront used to close earlier in the fall, he said, most are still open for the holidays because they’re luring enough traffic. Some of them open late on Saturday included O’Briens Restaurant, 226 Webb St.; the Clipper Inn, 126 State St.; Channelside Restaurant, 506 Riverside Drive; Bella’s, 602 Riverside Drive; and River Dogs, 419 Riverside Drive.

A pair of grandparents from Rochester who own a summer house in Clayton made the trip here Saturday with their three grandchildren. The group stopped for hot dogs at River Dogs, which opened last year after being renovated.

The community “seems like it’s from another time and place,” said Deborah L. Hochadel. “People are friendly, and it’s something you don’t find in big cities.”

By tradition, the Hochadels bring their grandchildren to Karla’s Christmas Shoppe, 500 Riverside Drive, to buy ornaments before the holiday parade.

For the youngsters, filling their stomachs with candy is part of the bargain. “Grandma and Grandpa let them eat anything they want,” Mrs. Hochadel said.

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