Behind the Scenes of the Santa Claus Parade
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Behind the Scenes of the Santa Claus Parade

A backstage look at how the beloved annual Christmas parade gets put together.

Turns out Santa’s workshop’s in a warehouse just off the 401.

Tucked behind packaging houses and kitchen supply wholesalers, an inauspicious façade masks a flurry of activity. Inside, a dozen-odd workers are moving costume racks, decorating floats, and putting the finishing touches on an army of giant wide-eyed figures. It may seem counterintuitive, but the uncanny valley effect actually increases with size.

Yes, there are only 11 days to go until the 111th annual Santa Claus Parade begins its march in front of Christie Pits Park, and so it’s crunch time at the shop. On November 15th, close to a million people will fill Toronto sidewalks to drink cocoa and jostle for glimpses of Santa, with television viewers in countries as far away as New Zealand and Norway joining them.

And there are 26 floats, 2,500 costumes, and 3,000 volunteers to wrangle together before then.

It seems like an impossible challenge, especially for a largely volunteer-run organization, yet the Santa Claus Parade has been doing it successfully since 1913. Along the way, they’ve survived everything from WWII’s rations policies (one year’s costumes were made entirely out of paper), to the loss of Eaton’s as their corporate sponsor (the organization quickly became a nonprofit, and arranged 20 corporate donors to help them save Christmas).

The event’s incredible longevity is a no-brainer for Alfred Iannarelli, the parade’s General Manager and Creative Director who first joined as a summer student in 1970. “It’s just one of those things that everybody loves. Everybody has stories of when their grandparents took them to the parade, when their parents took them. It’s a great tradition for this city.”

This respect for tradition is evident in everything in both the parade’s programming and its production. Iannarelli points out a barnyard-themed float that features animals originally purchased by Eatons for a nativity scene back in 1948. Suitably secularized and given new coats of paint, they fit right among today’s Lego men and Toronto Raptors mascot.

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Iannarelli is proud of the innovative ways his team can reconfigure old materials, seeing this as an an effective cost-cutting measure and a great way to incorporate aspects of the parade’s rich history. “Some of these costumes we’ve had for many, many years,” he says “Probably since the ’70s. I’ve got 14 tractor trailers full of loads of old pieces that we store off-site.”

“This singing elf here?” he says, gesturing. “That was Barbie until we fixed up her eyes and nose and gave her better ears.”

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The general public has to wait until the 15th to see Santa, but us visitors to the shop were treated to a surprise appearance after the organizers’ opening remarks. Taking the stage with rotund grace, Santa punctuated a few casually sexist comments about Mrs. Claus with hearty “Ho Ho Ho’s!” before breaking to quiz the media on reindeer trivia.

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The Santa Claus Parade by the numbers:
111: Years since the parade debuted, making it the longest running children’s parade in the world
900,000+: Expected attendance
2,000: Marchers participating in the parade.
6.5 kilometers: Length of the parade route, which stretches from Christie Pits to St. Lawrence Market.
12: Fulltime staff members working year-round on float construction, a number that doubles in October.
6 weeks to 3 months: Length of time, depending on complexity, that’s required to build a float.
26: Floats in this year’s fleet.
2,500: Costume pieces required each year.
$0: Amount the parade receives in public funding (which is why you’ll find Alice in Wonderland eating Pizza Pizza at her tea party)