Decorated with garland and red ribbons and pulled by a team of horses, a covered wagon rolls along Main Street in Peoria, Ill., just as it has every November since the town first heralded Santa Claus’ arrival with a downtown procession in 1888.
A beloved fixture of America’s longest-running Christmas parade, the Conestoga wagon carries 19th-century re-enactors and signals that the jolly old elf is next in line in Peoria’s annual Santa Claus Parade.
“Move back! Santa’s coming!” says parade volunteer Rita Bomhold, 50, handing out Tootsie Rolls to youngsters while she walks beside the wagon.
For nearly 125 years, the parade has proclaimed the start of the Christmas season, persevering through the 1929 stock market crash, blizzards and rainstorms. Even during World War II, when New York City’s famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was sidelined for three years, Peoria’s Thanksgiving weekend spectacle continued to bring holiday cheer.
“The community won’t let it go away,” says Susie Stockman, 71, parade coordinator for the last 25 years. “It gets in everyone’s blood. It’s the thing you do the day after Thanksgiving in Peoria.”
The tradition began in 1887, with a parade on the Illinois River to celebrate the completion of the Upper Free Bridge, located near the site of the present-day McCluggage Bridge. The next year, the parade was moved to land and wound through downtown Peoria.
Santa Claus always has been the main attraction, making his first appearance in 1887 on a river barge. Until he got his own sleigh and reindeer float in 1995, the red-suited guest of honor rode through town in a horse-drawn carriage, on a Mother Goose float or atop on a 12-foot gilded circus wagon.
For its first 72 years, Schipper & Block, a department store where thousands of people gathered to watch the spectacle, sponsored the Santa Claus Parade. The event grew to 3,000 participants and included a 43-pipe calliope, fireworks and floats constructed by store employees. The parade traditionally ended with Santa climbing a fire escape ladder and disappearing through a fifth-story window into the store’s toy department.
“As a kid, I always thought the Santa Claus was at the end of the parade. Once he arrived, we could talk about Christmas,” recalls Chris Roberts, 39, of Bartlett, Ill., watching last year’s procession with his wife and daughter.
In addition to kicking off the holiday season, the Santa Claus Parade is a source of pride for Peorians, making the city a pioneer for Christmas parades across America.
“There’s an old vaudeville saying, ‘If it plays in Peoria, it’ll play anywhere,’” says Stockman of her hometown’s reputation as “the average American city.”
Peoria’s procession, however, is definitely above average. The event features 19 vintage floats including the first parade’s covered wagon, a 1923 “Old Woman In a Shoe” display, and a 1990 “Christmas Under the Sea” exhibit—each evoking memories for up to 30,000 bystanders and 40,000 television viewers who watch each year.
“I think some parents bring their kids to the parade because they can say, ‘I was in that band,’ ‘I was on that float,’” says Stockman, who coordinates the event for a nonprofit community organization.
With a proud tradition to uphold and an emphasis on entertaining children, organizers maintain strict standards and exclude hand-shaking politicians, Santa impersonators and organizations with causes. Elementary school-age children ride floats while teenagers walk beside them, costumed as Disney and television cartoon characters.
“It’s a hometown parade!” exclaims Melissa Svymbrosky, 40, explaining why she attends each year with her family.
The event was so important to Roberts that he surprised his college sweetheart in 1998 by carrying a sign in the parade that said, “Kate, will you marry me?” Now married for 15 years, the couple congregates with relatives each year to watch the procession from the corner of Monroe and Hancock streets, where Kate accepted Chris’ proposal. Last year, they brought their daughter, Quinn, 2, to see Peoria’s Santa for the first time.
“We hope it’s a tradition we can keep up,” Chris says.