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Historicist: Santa Claus is Coming to Town

Every Saturday morning Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters—good and bad—that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.
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Santa Claus Float, Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, Toronto, 1930. Archives of Ontario Reference Code: F 229-308-0-814
Torontonians have little time left to determine if their names are on Santa Claus’s naughty or nice list. Tomorrow’s Santa Claus Parade will mark the 104th time that the Jolly Old Elf has ventured along the streets of our city to kick start the holiday season. From its beginnings as a short trek from Union Station sponsored by Eaton’s department store, the event has grown into a tradition for the five hundred thousand spectators on the route each year.


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Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, 1918, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Wikimedia Commons
The first parade was held on December 2, 1905, when Santa arrived from the North Pole at Union Station via train and was greeted by Timothy Eaton. Santa hopped into a horse-drawn truck and rode up to Eaton’s Queen Street store, tossing out candy, toys, and other gifts from his sack to children lined up along the way. For most of the parade’s first decade, Santa ended his journey at Massey Hall, where a court was built to hold youngsters eager to give their gift requests. Towards the end of World War I his destination moved to the store, though as Patricia Phenix described in Eatonians, his grand entrance at the end of the parade was not always so smooth:

Any employee who assumed the role of Santa had to face the daunting task of hoisting his padded belly up a fire ladder from the float to the store’s second floor Eaton’s Toyland window, located above Albert Street. More often than not, as “Santa” stumbled, frequently cursing, through the window he was resuscitated by swigs of “Seagram’s medicine,” provided by sympathetic store managers.

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Eaton’s advertisement, The Toronto Star, November 14, 1930
Several of the floats mentioned in this ad touting the 1930 parade would not pass muster today. This was also one of the first parades to feature licensed characters, including tributes to radio shows (Amos ‘n’ Andy) and comic strips (Toonerville Trolley).
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Mary Quite Contrary Float, Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, Toronto, 1930. Archives of Ontario Reference Code: F 229-308-0-814.
Fairy tale characters were the usual focus of the floats, such as this one based on “Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.” Floats and costumes were made in-house by Eaton’s, providing steady work year-round for carpenters and seamstresses. When company president Fredrik Eaton withdrew the store’s sponsorship in 1982 (citing reasons such as the recession and criticism from city officials on the parade’s timing), six full-time craftsmen were laid off after having completed eighty percent of the work on that year’s floats. The stunned workers, some of whom had worked on the parade for over thirty years, locked themselves in the workroom. One lamented to the a Star reporter on the other side of the door that “it would have been a beautiful parade.” He received his wish in December when the parade carried on, thanks to a non-profit group quickly organized by local business leaders and civic officials. At a press conference that announced the parade’s rescue, McDonald’s of Canada president George Cohon declared that, despite the view of the Eaton family, Santa Claus “is recession-proof.”
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Eaton’s advertisement, The Globe and Mail, November 14, 1969
Those playing Santa over the years have required varying levels of stamina depending on the parade route. The longest treks occurred between 1910 and 1912, when the parade was a two-day affair that headed downtown from Newmarket, with an overnight stop at York Mills. We suspect that Santa required a lot of “Seagram’s medicine” to survive the cold of those journeys. Yonge and Eglinton was the starting point for several years before the company settled on the Dupont and Dovercourt area, as seen in the 1969 route map above.
An extensive look at the history of the parade can be found on the Archives of Ontario website, along with downloadable tie-in colouring books from mid-century.
Additional material from the August 11, 1982 and August 20, 1982 editions of The Toronto Star.

Comments

  • Ben_Lawson

    What happened to the “picaninnies traveling on elephants” float? That must have been so cute! :-) Times change, eh?
    Looks like this year’s running is going to be a cold and wet one. I don’t miss that part of the parade…

  • MariaPD

    I was excited about the Parade the first years that I lived in Toronto. Sadly, it turned out to be a giant commercial for Fisher Price, Hot Wheels, Barbie, etc. There is nothing original in *that*.

  • David Toronto

    In the ’60s, I had to go to Dundas & Victoria the Saturday morning of the parade. Not remembering about it happening and getting off the subway at Dundas, I could not cross Yonge St. [Dundas station had no tunnel underneath Yonge St.] I had to pay another fare to go to Queen and ride back up to Dundas to exit on the east side and head to Victoria St.