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It can be an overwhelming experience. A chance to ask for whatever you’d like.

Ryleigh Carroll, 5, of Leonardtown had just had her once-a-year turn on Santa’s lap at the Sixth Annual Festival of Trees, held Dec. 7 at the Southern Maryland Higher Education Center as a fundraiser for Hospice of St. Mary’s.

As the red-haired girl was picked up and carried away, someone asked what she had just asked for from Santa. And she had to think. What was her big wish this year?

“A doll,” Ryleigh said finally.

Any doll?

Ryleigh nods.

Actually, Ryleigh wants an American Girl doll, one with red hair like her own, she explained, when prompted by her father, Steve Carroll, standing nearby and smiling. She plans to name the doll “Lila.” And she would also like some stuffed animals.

It’s a great opportunity for children — an audience with someone whom they believe will bring them whatever they ask for. What would adults ask for if they had the same opportunity?

“Straight up warm weather ... That’s the only thing I need,” Steve said.

Ryleigh’s aunt, Tara Moore of California, agreed. “Yeah, that would be nice.” Then she considered the weather forecast for that weekend, when a winter storm was expected. “A safe, happy, healthy holiday,” Moore added, “with everybody traveling and the ice storms.”

As about 900 visitors to the festival of trees admired the decorated Christmas trees and wreaths and visited the vendors set up for the occasion, the adult requests of Santa solicited for this story were much along the same line — not so much the things that could be wrapped and left under the tree, but the intangible things that so affect the adult world. Health, the economy and jobs were common themes ... along with a trip to France and few other large items that wouldn’t fit under a tree.

Three representatives from hospice — Eve Love, president of the board of directors; Mary Ann Stamm, vice president of the board; and Kathy Franzen, hospice director — stood near the entrance to the festival, watching the visitors come in and admiring the display. With the hours of effort to prepare for the festival on their minds, Love said she would ask for “a tree that doesn’t need fluffing ... and lights that always work.”

With tears in her eyes, Stamm said she would ask for good health for her 86-year-old mother in Pittsburgh. “She took a fall this week,” Stamm said. “I just want her to pull through and be healthy again.”

Franzen thought for awhile and said she’d ask for an expansion of Hospice House of St. Mary’s in Callaway. The hospice house, which currently has eight rooms, provides a homelike environment for people who require medical care as they approach the end of their life. “An addition ... three more rooms,” Franzen said.

Franzen noted that the house often has a waiting list. “There’s always like three people waiting,” she said.

Steve Elwood was in the holiday spirit, humming “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” as he poured himself some orange juice from a refreshment table. “Gourmet Steve” was at the festival as a vendor, where he and his wife were selling specialty olive oils and balsamic vinegars.

Elwood’s wish? “For my wife and I, a stress-free life” He said stress in their life often comes from financial strain. And then he added, “and for everyone to know the love of Jesus ... now that would definitely be a Christmas miracle.”

Vonnie Patton of Chaptico, the art teacher at Mechanicsville Elementary School, was at the festival as a vendor also, where she was selling handmade jewelry. “Peace on earth and for our children to stay healthy,” Patton said right away. And then she thought some more. She noted that she is at an age where she is thinking about retirement. She said she’d ask for a happy retirement with adequate health care.

“I want to travel out West and take classes on rocks and mineral identification,” Patton said, laughing. “I want to have fun and travel until my body falls apart.”

Finally, she said that she would also ask for the economy to pick up and for there to be more job opportunities for young people.

Betty Currie of Hollywood said she’d ask for “peace on earth and good will to all ... not just men,” she said with a chuckle.

And Sue Gibbs, a longtime librarian with St. Mary’s County Library who is now retired, said she would ask that everyone have a good planting season this spring and “enough rain all summer to keep our gardens green and growing.”

She added, “a trip to France would be nice, too!”

Back at the festival’s Santa station, Santa sat in a rocking chair and patiently listened to the lists of requests from young people.

They asked for footballs and soccer balls, iPods, Playstation 4, CD players, TVs, bicycles. “A lot of video games. A lot of Barbie dolls still. A lot of Batman and Spiderman things,” he said.

What does Santa want for Christmas?

“Joy in the hearts of everybody,” he said, with no hesitation. Almost like he’d been waiting for someone to ask.