Merry and Bright

Bristol celebrates 31 years of Christmas tradition with their annual Grand Illumination


You can always tell when the holidays are approaching in the East Bay. Many towns will wrap the trees and lampposts lining the main roads with twinkling lights. Town tree lightings are grand celebrations of both the local business and the most wonderful time of the year, and in Bristol, the annual Grand Illumination happening on December 1 is the jolliest event of the season. Small shops and family owned restaurants will open their doors to patrons. Students and local artists will sell their wares and perform on Hope Street for crowds eager to start feeling merry. You’ll hear carols and see smiles of people sipping hot chocolate with their loved ones. You’ll really feel compelled to say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet.

Then, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Just before 6pm, Santa Claus himself will make an appearance and address the crowd, initiating the countdown to the actual flick of the switch that will turn on the lights through all of Bristol.

For several years, that Santa Claus has been played by Michael Rielly, a third-generation Santa warming the hearts of the young and old alike. Rielly takes his position as Santa very seriously. He began portraying the role when he was eight years old, in a school play. By the time he was in his teens, he would visit the Rhode Island Veterans Home where his mother worked as Santa, spreading cheer to those who might need it the most. With the blessing of his late grandfather, Jim Rielly (who was Bristol’s de facto Santa for over 60 years), he keeps the tradition alive at one of Bristol’s most enjoyable holiday events.

If you’re still feeling festive the next morning and want to catch another glimpse of the Big Man in Red, head over to Mount Hope High School for Breakfast with Santa. For $5, enjoy a pancake breakfast, face painting, a magic show, and more. Children under the age of five are considered “Santa’s special guests” and get in for free. Don’t forget to pose for a keepsake photo – Grandma and Grandpa will want that one framed!