Shawna Fletcher

The Santa Claus Parade this year marked its 114th anniversary. The parade predates the Macy’s parade in New York City by almost 20 years. The very first parade was quite literally a one-man show. Old St Nick pulled into Union Station on a train in 1905 to make his first tour through Toronto on a single float sponsored by Eaton’s Department Store. The following year trumpeters and footmen were added to the mix.  

The parade reached its longest in distance and duration between 1910 and 1912 when Santa began his journey in Newmarket on a Friday afternoon, with an overnight stop in York Mills, before heading down Yonge Street on Saturday afternoon. Today the route is a mere 5.6 km.

In 1913 Eaton’s arranged for live reindeer, imported from Labrador, to pull Santa’s sleigh. The reindeer were cared for by a dedicated veterinarian who made sure they were in good health and supplied with their diet of moss. Once the parade was over, they were retired to the property of an Eaton’s executive outside Toronto. Children could drop letters to Santa in baskets carried by bearers, and every letter received a personal response from Santa. You don’t often see customer service like that these days.

In the early years Santa also held court in Massey Hall after the parade, and upwards of 9000 children and their parents would squeeze in to see him during the three daily reception times.  

In 1919 Santa literally flew into town, arriving by plane on the old Aerodrome on Eglinton Avenue. This was a one-time only event, and probably for the best; imagine trying to touch down on Eglinton these days with LRT construction and rush hour traffic!!.

From 1925 to the 1960s Toronto shared its floats with Montreal for that city’s parade, shipping them from one city to the other by rail. That tradition ended with the FLQ bombings that occurred during the ‘60s.

As the Great Depression wore on, families listened for a month to radio broadcasts leading up to the parade, chronicling Santa’s journey from the North Pole to Toronto. The broadcasts and the anticipation were highlights in a bleak world. During World War II when materials were scarce, many of the costumes were made of paper. 

By 1950 the parade was the largest in North America and was first televised in 1952. It looked as though the parade might come to an end in 1982 when Eaton’s pulled its sponsorship after 77 years. But within three days Ron Barbaro and George Cohon formed a not-for-profit organization and saved the parade. The next year saw the birth of the celebrity clowns, when more than 60 executives paid $1000 each to hand out balloons along the parade route.  

Today there are over 200 clowns, who raise about $200 000 annually. The parade now features over 25 animated floats with themes from Harry Potter to Mother Goose, and about 2000 costumed participants march through the city streets on the third Sunday of November each year. Eagerly awaiting them are over one million excited children and parents, with many more watching the parade’s televised journey from the warmth of their living rooms.

Happy Holidays!

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