THOUSANDS of people gathered in Bury St Edmunds for the official start of the festive season in the town.

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Families turned out tonight to enjoy the stalls and entertainment ahead of the main attraction, the annual Christmas lights switch-on.

Sue Kemp, who works in McDonald’s in the town, was given the chance to light up the town after being crowned customer service champion by Bid4Bury, a town centre business improvement group.

For the countdown, she was joined on the RWS 103.3 FM stage in the Buttermarket by Father Christmas and cast members of Rapunzel and the Rascal Prince, the Christmas pantomime at the town’s Theatre Royal from November 30 to January 13.

When the coloured lights flashed on, shimmering confetti rained down on the dancing crowds.

Among the other attractions were the ever-popular penguins and reindeer in Abbeygate Street.

The five male Humboldt penguins - which in the wild can be found along the west coast of South America - drew a crowd of fascinated children and adults.

Sam Whitbread, who was helping to manage the attraction, said penguins had been popularised over the past few years with films like Happy Feet.

“Penguins are really universally popular I think because they are really caricatures of a human.”

He added: “People do love them.”

Mr Whitbread said people associated penguins with freezing temperatures, but these penguins were comfortable with the UK climate.

Tonight many shops were open until 8pm and there has also been free parking in the town centre.

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