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Fontenelle Forest kicks off holiday season

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Take a look at a few moments from Christmas celebrations at The Durham Museum

Fontenelle Forest kicked off the winter season on Saturday, serving up holiday cheer with a side of education.

Dozens of families showed up at the 1,400-acre protected forest and nature center in Bellevue for the start of Winter Wonderland programming and the annual Holiday Festival at the Forest. Holiday celebrations at Fontenelle Forest have been a tradition for more than a decade, said program coordinator Denise Lewis.

“We’re really proud of the fact that so many families come to check us out around the holidays,” Lewis said. “This is really our big event to showcase the forest in the wintertime.”

For the Winter Wonderland event, forest staff members have transformed the Great Hall — the education area and entryway to the forest — into a holiday party complete with ornament-making stations and extravagantly decorated Christmas trees and wreaths. The outdoor boardwalk is also lit up with holiday lights. The display will stay up until Jan. 2.

The forest’s holiday festival includes additional events. On Saturday, animal care specialists showed off some of the resident raptors and reptiles, inviting kids to learn more about their backstories and get comfortable around wild creatures.

Kristen and Christian Moffat came to the holiday festival with their two children, ages 1 and 4. The 4-year-old was excited to see Santa, while the little one was enamored with a 9-year-old eastern screech owl named George.

“They’re definitely really excited by the animals,” Christian said.

For employees who care for the animals and have the chance to show them off, the excitement is mutual. Patrick Conner, a reptile care specialist, loves doing educational events with the forest’s snakes.

On Saturday, he told families the story of Ainsworth, a bull snake who was saved from Ainsworth, Nebraska, after his home burned down.

“It’s awesome to get kids up close and personal with these animals,” Conner said. “It’s so important to foster that curiosity.”

On Sunday, families are invited to come to the forest to join one of two carol hiking sessions at 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. Christmas sweaters or holiday costumes are encouraged for participants as they sing their way through the forest.

While Fontenelle Forest will continue holiday programming until Jan. 2, the holiday festival runs through Friday. During the festival, the forest will have extended hours and remain open until 7 p.m.