It’s the faces of the kids!

November 21, 2010

On a November day in 1905, a man wearing a white beard and red suit stepped off the train, met Timothy Eaton and his wife, and walked to their store through downtown Toronto. This marked the beginning of a tradition which outlasted the Eaton corporation and has become an important part of our Canadian culture: the Santa Claus parade.

In 1908 a truck and a band joined Timothy Eaton’s annual procession. By 1924 Gimbel’s in Philadelphia, Macy’s in New York, and the J.L. Hudson Company in Detroit had picked up on the idea as a means to kick off sales for the Christmas season.

After watching this year’s Toronto Santa Claus Parade on television, I found the only thing which rang true was the comment by Santa in answer to an interviewer’s question. What did he find the most interesting thing about the parade? “It’s the faces of the kids!”

As a veteran of three Santa Claus parades, the last two this weekend, I have to agree with this Santa’s assessment. I’ll never forget the girl in the T-Rex outfit who followed us last year in Westport. This year in Prescott and Kemptville I found it hard to believe that there are that many kids in the country.

Families love a parade. People of all ages come out simply to enjoy the spectacle and the company of others. Despite the department store hype, it’s not so much about Santa, or advertising, or the other crass aspects of consumption. From what I have seen in these parades the magic of Christmas is about parents celebrating an idea of a world they can make work for them.

Each community has a distinct identity. Prescott emphasized lots and lots of lights on Friday night. My first impression of the parade came when I parked beside the only other truck in the marshaling yard when I arrived at dusk. The back of its trailer opened and out backed a golf cart loaded with great gobs of lights driven by a straining generator somewhere under the dozens of strings of decorations. The driver in a clown suit stopped, made a few minor adjustments, then flicked a switch to inflate an 8’ clown on top of the cart. Then he turned on the stereo and his tiny float was ready to roll. It looked good.

Marjory went over to talk to the guy. He’s been attending the parade for ten years, adding a bit to his cart each year, and getting better at keeping the thing operating until the end of the route. We followed him back to his trailer after the parade. At full speed for a mile down the highway his inflated clown was still hanging on and all of the lights still worked. Apparently the only problem was his chilly feet and hands.

Prescott’s evening parade may be a victim of its success. Huge numbers of floats entered. Many heavy trucks wheeled in with trumpeting air horns and gleaming chrome. One minor hockey float had a rear-lit projection of hockey scenes. As we lined up my heart was in my mouth: a very young boy wearing a hard hat from a utility company I did not recognize was perched alone in the cherry picker on top of a large service truck.

The way Federal Liberal Candidate Marjory Loveys operates in parades, I drive my Ranger, decorated with wrapped gifts and carrying the candy larder. She walks or jogs the route, meeting as many people as she can. Her growing entourage of volunteers dressed as elves pass out candy canes to the kids and generally look supportive.

In Prescott the elves panicked when they saw the vast number of kids. Four kilos of candy canes disappeared in the first quarter mile. What to do? Elf Shawn spotted a likely store and dashed ahead, soon to return with another five kilos. With care the elves were able to make this supply last for the remainder of the parade.

Everybody was astonished and a bit stressed by the sheer number of faces at the Prescott parade. Though there were lots of people there as well, Saturday afternoon’s outing in Kemptville was a more relaxed affair with some time to chat with fellow participants and spectators. Kemptville merchants spoiled us with hot chocolate and cookies, dashing out from their stores to hand the goodies to us as we passed. The COGECO master of ceremonies parked himself squarely in my path while he had an on-air chat with Marjory. And there was the sandwich shop owner who adorned three young women (her daughters, I suspect) with exceptionally creative costumes depicting her wares. The veggie-sub costume I immediately understood. The others were a little trickier, but amusing to see. Mom pulled a wagon loaded with mini-sandwiches and the girls handled distribution. They didn’t have any trouble giving them away.

And then there was the huge, pink, propane truck. I had to ask. The driver was happy to tell his story. Superior Propane bought two $400,000 Kenworth trucks painted pink in support of the Breast Cancer awareness program, one for Ottawa and the other to work out of Guelph. A portion of the revenue from every litre each truck pumps goes as a contribution to the fund. On a busy day, “As much as a couple of hundred dollars from each truck goes to breast cancer research.” It takes a real man to drive a pink truck, but the guys at Superior seem proud to do it.

Next week is the Brockville parade, so wish us luck.

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