The Santa Claus Parade

On Friday, November 19, 2004, the Ontario Heritage Foundation unveiled a provincial plaque to celebrate the 100th Santa Claus Parade. The bilingual text reads as follows:


    In 1905, Timothy Eaton's department store began the tradition of the Santa Claus Parade. Initially, the parade featured Santa Claus on a horse-drawn cart. The parade has grown in size and splendour to include upside-down clowns, colourful marching bands, mascots, characters in elaborate costumes, ornately-decorated floats and — of course — Santa Claus himself. Over the years, Santa has travelled from the North Pole by train, coach, ice floe, airplane and sleigh pulled by nine reindeer. In 1982, a local volunteer group assumed responsibility for the parade. One of Canada's longest-running traditions, the parade remains focussed on bringing joy to children and continues to enchant and entertain people of all ages.


    En 1905, le grand magasin de Timothy Eaton a commencé la tradition de la Parade du Père Noël. À l'origine, la vedette de cette parade était le Père Noël, dans un chariot tiré par des chevaux. La parade prit de l'envergure et embellit. Elle incluait des clowns marchant sur les mains, des fanfares hautes en couleur, des mascottes, des personnages en costumes élaborés, des chars magnifiquement décorés et, bien sûr, le Père Noël en personne. Au fil des ans, le Père Noël est arrivé du pôle Nord en train, en diligence, sur de la glace flottante, en avion ou en traîneau tiré par neuf rennes. En 1982, un groupe de bénévoles local a assumé la responsabilité de cette parade. Une des plus longues traditions canadiennes, la parade a pour objectif de divertir les enfants et continue d’enchanter et d’amuser les personnes de tous âges.

Historical background

Since Timothy Eaton's department store began holding Toronto's Santa Claus Parade in 1905, it has become one of the longest-running traditions in Canada. Believed to be the first parade of its kind in the world, over the decades it has grown into one of the largest parades in North America.1

For many Canadians, Eaton's — one of the largest department stores in North America in the 19th century — was an important part of preparing for the Christmas holiday. The store issued its first Christmas catalogue in 1897 and by 1903 was supplementing the eagerly awaited publication by having Santa Claus appear in the store's toy department. And no Christmas season was complete without a trip to see the elaborate Christmas displays in the windows of Eaton's main store on Yonge Street — the "mechanized tableaux" transporting children and grown-ups alike to a Christmas wonderland.

Eaton's held the first Santa Claus Parade on Saturday, December 2, 1905. After arriving from his mythical journey from the North Pole, Santa Claus emerged from the old Union Station on Front Street to take his place on top of a brightly coloured packing case on a horse-drawn Eaton delivery truck. His journey through Toronto to the Eaton's Yonge Street store was advertised by Eaton's in newspapers and watched by families lining the streets. Although the ultimate purpose was to entice shoppers to the store, the parade began as, and continued to be, a non-commercial celebration whose goal was to enchant and entertain.

Size and splendour

Initially, the parade featured only Santa Claus but — over the years — it has grown in size and splendour. In the early years, Santa travelled by coach drawn by four horses accompanied by four trumpeters. Later, a band was added to the retinue. By 1910, the idea of a parade float was introduced and rather than riding in a coach, Santa appeared to emerge from the chimney of a recreated log cabin. By 1911, costumed attendants, horsemen and clowns joined the procession. The parade of 1913 was especially thrilling when live reindeer (brought in from Labrador) accompanied Santa on his float. This memorable event was outdone in 1919 when Santa arrived by airplane at the aerodome on Eglinton Avenue.

By the beginning of the Second World War, the Santa Claus Parade had grown to include seven floats. Along with the floats, children carrying pennants were encouraged to join in the parade for its last leg, themselves becoming part of the spectacle. By the end of the war, the parade included over 600 participants, numerous bands and dozens of floats based on popular fairy tales.

The parade route changed during this period, too. Before 1950, the route changed no less than 10 times. From 1907 to 1909, Santa arrived at the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) North Toronto Station. From 1910 to 1916, his journey began from even farther north — the town of Newmarket — and, with an overnight stop in York Mills, it took two days to complete the trip to the Eaton's store. For several years, these excursions culminated at Massey Hall where a grand reception or "Royal Court" saw thousands of children and parents entertained by Santa and other fairy-tale figures. But after Eaton's officially opened Toyland — an entire commercial sales floor devoted to the one department — the parade concluded with Santa dramatically climbing a fire ladder to the second-floor toy department. The current route of the Santa Claus Parade was established in 1981.

The Director of Public Relations for Eaton's, Jack Brockie, controlled every facet of the parade from 1928 until he retired in 1963.2 During the 1950s, the parade was in its heyday when the elaborate, well co-ordinated affair employed a year-round staff at Eaton's and the company allocated a separate budget for the event (in 1955, the amount was $70,000).3 Store employees were taken from their posts for a few hours to march and perform in the parade. But as the parade grew to include over 1,000 people, this system became impractical. The marchers were then recruited from district schools and paid a nominal fee.4 Children applied for the honour, some waiting three years for their opportunity. Eaton's junior executives were responsible for the recruiting process, often basing their decisions on the specified sizes and heights required for the costumes. Eaton's was adamant about not filling the parade with celebrities or politicians, since the day belonged to the children.

While the Santa Claus Parade was held in Toronto, Eaton's hosted parades in other Canadian cities as well. The parade in Winnipeg also began in 1905 but was cancelled in 1967.5 The parade in Montreal debuted in 1925, taking place one week after the Toronto event in an effort to share the resources. As soon as the parade ended in Toronto, most of the floats and costumes were loaded onto covered boxcars at Union Station for their trip to Montreal.6 The Toronto organizers were pleased to note that the spectators in Quebec seemed even more lively and receptive than those in Toronto — "French Canadians treat the event as a carnival, where here (Toronto) it’s just a parade."7 The popularity of Montreal's parade made it even sadder when in 1968 Eaton's Montreal store manager permanently cancelled the parade after receiving Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) bomb threats.

The television age

By the 1950s, however, families across Canada and elsewhere were able to watch the parade on television. The first televising of the parade was on the CBC in 1952.8 A film of the event was also distributed to the United States and abroad, being shown in cities such as London and Paris. By the 1970s, more than 30 million people across North America watched the parade.9

Between the estimated one million people lining the five-mile parade route and those watching on television, Eaton's was sure to reach a wide audience. Yet the commercialization of the spectacle was stringently downplayed, at least for the first 50 years. Nowhere in the parade did the word "Eaton's" appear. A reporter in 1953 noted "a man from Mars, or even from Cleveland, wouldn’t have the faintest idea who was putting it on."10

It was only in 1959 that the company began to feel the need to capitalize on the parade. Eaton's had considerable investments in the parade and the company's executive officers emphasized the need for the parade to direct attention to "Canada's Christmas Store." In particular, they had serious concerns about the CBC selling advertising spots, which would allow another business, for a small cost, to profit from their investment.11 Yet the corporate branding remained discreet even into the 1970s because, as stated by the Eaton's Public Relations Department, the Santa Claus Parade was a show for children.

"Save Our Santa"

To the dismay of many, after having survived the Great Depression and two wars, Eaton's announced that the Santa Claus Parade was to be cancelled after continually operating for 77 years. In August 1982, the parade's demise was front-page news. Letters of complaint to Eaton's and to the city newspapers show that many people had come to believe that the "Eaton's Parade is Christmas." But the public relations value of the parade was no longer worth the cost — then approaching a half-million dollars.12 The company had also been subject to increasing criticism regarding the date of the parade — it was either deemed too early (thus rushing Christmas and conflicting with Remembrance Day) or too late (exposing young children to inclement weather conditions).13 Given the number of employees being laid off during the 1980s recession, Eaton's did not feel that it could justify the cost of the parade.

Within one week of the announcement, a "Save Our Santa” campaign was well underway and a committee of local volunteers quickly began acquiring corporate sponsors. With Eaton's agreeing to transfer all of the costumes, floats and other parade equipment to the new not-for-profit organization, the parade was mounted in that year — and every year since — with corporate sponsorship and the celebrity clown program providing financial stability.

In its 100th year, the parade features upside-down and celebrity clowns, colourful marching bands, mascots, characters in elaborate costumes, ornately decorated floats and — of course — Santa Claus himself. An important public spectacle focussing on the enjoyment of children, the Santa Claus Parade continues to enchant and entertain people of all ages.

The Ontario Heritage Foundation gratefully acknowledges the research of Dr. Sharon Vattay in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Foundation, 2004

1 Mary-Etta MacPherson, Shopkeepers to a Nation: The Eatons (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1963): 55; Robert Grant, “Behind the Parade,” Northern Circuit (Christmas 1951): 8.

2 William Stephenson, The Store that Timothy Built (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1969): 235.

3 H.R. How, “The Santa Claus Parade is a year-round job,” Canadian Business Magazine (November 1955): 86.

4 Letter dated November 16, 1968, Archives of Ontario, Eaton’s Fonds (F229-162-0-597).

5 Patricia Phenix, Eatonians: The Story of the Family Behind the Family (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2002): 61.

6 How: 86.

7 Quoted in Phenix: 61.

8 Broadcast Week Magazine, November 12, 1983.

9 Santa Claus Parade Office notes, Archives of Ontario (F229-162-0-585).

10 Robert Thomas Allen, “How Santa Claus comes to town,” Canadian Business Magazine (1953): 33.

11 Letter dated October 27, 1959, Archives of Ontario (F229-162-0-585).

12 Globe and Mail, August 10, 1982.

13 Eaton’s press release, August 9, 1982, Archives of Ontario (F-229-162-0-598).