There's one Christmas ditty you'll be hearing a lot in Kensington, Md.: "Here comes Santa Claus."

That's because the town is expecting an army of thousands of the jolly red elves right down its Santa Claus(es) Lane, all protesting the town's decision to make their Christmas celebration Santa-free.

"It's blown totally out of proportion," Mayor Lynn Raufaste said. "Now the children who felt bad because they wouldn't see Santa Claus will have to have explained to them why there are so many millions of them."

It all began when, responding to complaints from a couple local families that Santa wasn't secular enough, the four-member town council decided unanimously to put a patriotic theme on the celebration instead and give Kris Kringle the boot.

To avoid the appearance of sanctioning the Christian holiday by having Santa on hand, the town of about 2,000 decided instead to honor firefighters, police officers, mail carriers and the military. Leaflets around town promised "a celebration of the American spirit through lights and music."

So St. Nick, the traditional Kensington tree-lighter, was out – and people around the country were outraged. E-mails, letters and phone calls flooded Town Hall. Hundreds, then thousands, of renegade Santa Clauses then promised to crash the party.

The local volunteer firefighters, who traditionally provided the bulk of the town's Santas and expected to again this year, were shocked.

"We've been doing this for 30 years. I've done the Santa routine myself," Mike Kelley, the Kensington Volunteer Fire Department's administrative officer, said. "It's something many of the members look forward to, and it's a part of the firehouse life, just like the red suspenders, the brass sliding pole and Dalmation dogs."

"It's gotten scary," Rausaufe said in a telephone interview. "There's some nasty e-mails coming and nasty things being said. I feel very sad that what has always been a lovely event in our town is not what we're going to see this year. Honoring all our postal workers and military and police and fireman is all that we wanted to do. This year it's a shame it's not going to turn out the way we want to."

The town even went to the trouble of issuing a press release about the decision and the anger it sparked.

"Not even Dr. Seuss could have attracted this much attention to our annual Tree Lighting," it read. "But we all feel the attention is missing a key point: This year is different than most years. The events of Sept. 11 require a different kind of ceremony.

"We now suspect that Santa Claus(es) will show up one way or another. Santa is always welcome and we sure won't send him up to the hills above Whobille, even if he doesn't have a formal invitation from the Town of Kensington."

The mayor has even said there will be no problem if the town's volunteer fire service has a Santa of its own on a firetruck, but he will not be participating in the ceremony.

"Santa Claus will be there," Fire Chief Jim Stanton vowed.

But neither he nor the mayor expected that concession to the holiday seasons to stop hordes of angry Santas from descending on a little town that usually gets a couple of hundred visitors for its holiday extravaganza.

"I think a lot of people in town are still very upset, just from a principle thing," Kelley, who said he is happy with the compromise, said. "For 30 years, Santa has come and the kids have enjoyed him. He might have some religious connotations, but nowadays he's just a jolly old guy who's a toymaker and a giftgiver."

"I'm encouraging the thousands of people who are coming to keep the peace in mind and remember we are a small town," Raufaste said.