There was a bright start to the "official" holiday season in Westport as the lights blazed to life Thursday evening on the 40-foot fir tree in front of Town Hall.

Hundreds of residents gathered for the ceremonial lighting of the town's Christmas tree in the chilly air, a setting further illuminated by a brilliant full moon rising over the crowd.

"We love to see the tree lighting," said Kristina Andrew of Weston. "I always saw it when I was a kid (in Maine). It's kind of a nice way to kickoff December."

"My wife came last year and said it was a fun night out," said Mark Ratcliffe of Westport, who brought his daughter, Georgia, 3, to help usher in the season.

"Family makes every holiday special," said Nidal Abisaab of Westport. "Christmas is unique and, with kids, and Santa around, it's a special time of year."

Following the tree lighting, many attendees flocked to the nearby Westport Historical Society, where David's Teas -- the newest member of the Downtown Merchants Association -- warned spirits with complimentary cups of tea.

"This is the holiday kickoff for the downtown," said Cathy Colgan, events producer for the merchant group. "We did it last year for the first time, and it was really well-received."

Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church later was the setting for more seasonal festivities, including caroling, food, ice sculpting and musical performances. Tables were also set up in the church's Great Hall by local nonprofits, offering people the chance to make holiday donations to benefit organizations that try to give to those in need all year long.

"It's the second year we've done it and we just love opening our doors for the Westport community," said Sue Ryan, director of church administration for the church.

"It's the kick off of the holidays and I love all the children their exposure to the nonprofits in the community," she said. "It's just invigorating."

Chris Coogan performed music for the holiday reception, as did the Staples High School Orphenians.

On the weekends of Dec. 8-9 and Dec. 15-16, the Downtown Merchants Association will sponsor free carriage rides and caroling around downtown as another way to make the holiday shopping season more appealing.

Also, a rotund, bearded visitor to Westport, attired in a distinctive red suit, will be roaming Main Street to add to the holiday cheer.