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REMEMBER THIS: Santa Claus is (finally) coming to town

Inspired by the Toronto Santa Claus parade, Barrie's annual event began in 1949

As the village became a town, and the town grew to be a city, Barrie has often looked to that big city to the south for cultural inspiration. If Toronto has it, should we not have it, too?

In a kickoff to the 1904 Christmas shopping season, Santa Claus arrived at Union Station in Toronto and walked to the Queen Street location of the Eaton’s store. He was followed by a small group of very excited children and their parents.

Eaton’s immediately realized that they were onto something and organized a real Santa Claus parade for Toronto for the following year.

That first Toronto parade was very simple and featured only one float. Over the years, Santa’s mode of transportation varied. He came by plane and by chariot and on one occasion, by sleigh pulled by live reindeer.

The crowds came, too. Oh boy, did they ever.

By the late 1940s, the Toronto Santa Claus was the biggest parade of its kind on the continent. The coming of television in the 1950s meant that it could be viewed by millions in Canada and in the United States.

Barrie was influenced by the Toronto Santa Claus parade. Every year, plenty of local residents motored to the city with their children to attend the event and special trains brought others. The Toronto parade was considered the unofficial beginning of Christmas shopping season here in Barrie.

As smaller towns, such as Orangeville, Elmvale, and Orillia began to organize their own Santa Claus parades, Barrie citizens wondered aloud why their town had no such event and sometimes expressed their thoughts in letters to newspaper editors.

On a warm June evening in 1949, the town council took a stroll from the town hall to the library where they were shown a film of the Toronto Santa Claus parade. Christmas was six months away but inspiration was sparked by that film viewing and the Chamber of Commerce began a survey on the subject shortly thereafter.

In October of that year, a committee made up of retail merchants announced that “a giant Christmas parade will be held in Barrie and St. Nick with Prancer and Dancer and all his other reindeer and helpers will be there to see the children” on Nov. 22.

This inaugural parade was held on a Tuesday at 1:30 in the afternoon. Starting at the Essa Road Fairgrounds, the parade travelled along Bradford Street, then through Dunlop Street West and East, and ended up at the town hall. A children’s meet-and-greet was then held with Santa at the Oddfellows Hall.

That first parade featured sixteen floats, each of them decorated in a nursery rhyme theme.

As you can imagine, there were some snags. One of the main attractions, the much-respected Barrie Collegiate Institute Band of some 100 students, was unable to perform. They owned no winter parade costumes and the school board was opposed to allowing the band members to miss a day of studies.

Nevertheless, that 1949 Santa Claus parade was attended by thousands and was considered an instant hit. With marching bands, clowns, live animal features and town dignitaries riding in limousines, Barrie felt that it had arrived on the big stage that had previously been occupied by the Toronto Eaton’s Santa Claus parade alone.

Each week, the Barrie Historical Archive provides BarrieToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past. This unique column features photos and stories from years gone by and is sure to appeal to the historian in each of us

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Mary Harris

About the Author: Mary Harris

Mary Harris is the Director of History and Research at the Barrie Historical Archive. The Barrie Historical Archive is a free, online archive that centralizes Barrie's historical content.
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