There was a jolly old time downtown Saturday as Fairfield rolled out the red (of course!) carpet for the jolliest of all people -- Santa Claus, himself -- to herald the start of holiday celebrations.

Santa, giving his reindeer the day off and arriving by fire engine, met with young fans at the Sherman Green gazebo, surrounded by a festive atmosphere organized by the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce, which included horse-and-carriage rides, a petting zoo, food and booths set up by 18 community organizations to promote the causes for the holidays.

Ryan Donahue and Andrea Finella of the Junior League of Eastern Fairfield County, had crafts for kids, while Representative Town Meeting member Chris Tymniak and sons James and Sam, ages 1 and 5 respectively, were petting goats and sheep at the mini zoo.

Meanwhile, Dirk Vanderblue cooked up hot dogs at the Fairfield Kiwanis booth.

Nick Toledo and John Finno of Boy Scout Troop 199 sold selling wreaths and hot chocolate.

Lauren Onofrio, 17, a Fairfield Ludlowe High School senior, offered packages of "reindeer food" to raise funds for the Make A Wish Foundation, as Lindsay Meyerson and Katie Sargent of the Hopkins School of New Haven collected donations for the Connecticut Food Bank.

But the center of attention, at the center of the green, was the Big Man in Red ensconced in a big chair at the gazebo, who met with a long line of youngsters who whispered their secret Christmas wishes. Santa was assisted by "elves" Isabelle Morse, 10, and Elizabeth Sargeant, 9.

Among those waiting to visit with Santa was Mala Payman-Buckley, who traveled from Stratford with her sons Thomas, 9, and Matthew, 5.

Beverly Balaz, the chamber's new executive director sporting faux reindeer antlers for the occasion, was pleased by the large turnout Saturday.

"We've had great participation this year with seven main sponsors and all the various activities," she said. "This event represents the December holidays kickoff in Fairfield as well as Small Business Saturday, which was started in 2010 to encourage people to shop locally and support hometown businesses. Small businesses have to survive in our town -- they are the backbone of our community."

The Santa event, Balaz added, was a prelude to the new "Shop 'n' Stroll" planned Dec. 12, the first holiday shopping event promoted jointly by the chamber and the town.

Rose Coor, a former Chamber of Commerce chairwoman, commended Balaz for working to strengthen the local business community through chamber and town promotions. "The economy and weather events of the last couple of years have had a deep effect on the business climate," Coor said. "So this is also a celebration of the comeback."