Santa Claus is coming to town — whether he's allowed to or not.

Ho-ho-ho-ing in the face of a ban on Santa imposed by the Kensington, Md., council, dozens of men in white beards and red Claus suits flocked to the small town Sunday for a tree-lighting ceremony. The St. Nicks arrived by pickup trucks and motorcycles.

The event garnered international attention because of the town council's decision to toss out Father Christmas and a holiday theme in favor of Uncle Sam and patriotism. The string of men dressed as Santa said they showed up in protest because they were outraged by the ban.

"It was a big mistake," said resident Ken Greaney, one of 21 fathers dressed as Santa.

Hundreds of people gathered at the town's armory, some chanting "No Santa, No Peace." Others held signs that read, "Yes Kensington, There is a Santa Claus."

"People just want Santa Claus, so they've got him in numbers," said Kensington Mayor Lynn Raufaste.

The Montgomery County community of 1,800 sparked worldwide anger and snickering when town officials banned Santa in October. The Town Council changed the event from a Christmas-oriented event to a patriotic celebration.

Instead of red and green lights, there were red, white and blue lights and patriotic songs. Instead of having Santa flip the switch, the council appointed a local firefighter, police officer and mail carrier.

Some Kensington residents, who do not celebrate Christmas, argued Santa did not fit in a secular celebration, and the four-member council agreed.

The decision drew the attention of radio talk show hosts, and town officials received more than 2,000 e-mails complaining about the ban.

Fire department administrators told the mayor last week they would bring Santa to the ceremony. Town officials approved, saying the ban never prohibited the fire department from bringing Santa along.

Santa Claus arrived as he traditionally has — on a firetruck — and waved to a cheering crowd. He helped light the tree and said he wasn't offended about initially being excluded.

"(It) doesn't matter to Santa who pulls the switch, he just wants to be here because I'm part of Christmas," said Kensington Volunteer Fire Department Lt. Ken Forti, who played the part of the official Santa.

Town officials also were set to present Santa with a special proclamation of the city, and a local merchants association planned to give him a key to the city Friday.

Both measures are a first for Kensington, said Beth Offenbacker, a spokeswoman for the Old Town Kensington Merchants Association.

"We thought it was a way to hopefully bring people together given what's happened," she said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.