Since 1905, The Santa Claus Parade has taken over the streets of downtown Toronto each year in November. Eaton’s department store, once one of Canada’s most successful national retail companies, started the yearly tradition.
The Early Years of the Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade
Timothy Eaton had an idea to attract parents and their children to Eaton’s department store. So in 1905, a flurry of telegrams announced that Santa was arriving at Union Station from the North Pole. His route through Toronto’s streets was lined with eager crowds. Like a Pied Piper, the jolly fellow, seated on a crate on the back of a horse-drawn cart, was followed to Eaton’s store at Queen St W and Yonge St. Santa climbed up a ladder to Toyland that was located on the second storey of the store. When Eaton’s threw open its doors, the shopping frenzy began. What started as a publicity stunt became a Christmas tradition beloved by Toronto, Canada and many around the world.
Every year following, the parade became larger and more elaborate. In the 1910s, mounted police, bands and cadets opened the parade. Children gazed with wonder at floats with nursery rhyme characters like Cinderella, Humpty Dumpty, Mother Goose and The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. Santa in his snow-clad chariot was drawn by steeds. His Outriders rode white horses and were dressed in red and green with tinsel plumes on their helmets. Some kids climbed trees and telegraph poles to get the first glimpse of St Nick while others followed behind Santa waving red felt pennants that were given to them at Queen’s Park. The parade travelled through downtown even making a stop at Massey Hall, before winding its way to end at Eaton’s store.
The 1920s & 1930s
During the Great Depression years, Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade was a day of celebration for Torontonians. In 1932, radio station CFRB (today’s Newstalk 1010) began programming that tracked Santa from the North Pole to Toronto. When Parade Day finally arrived, whether you were one or ninety-one, the thousands upon thousands that lined the streets were beyond excited.
The festivities started at Lansdowne Ave and headed east along Bloor St W, south on Queen’s Park, University Ave, then along streets by the University Avenue Armouries (since demolished), Osgoode Hall and Old City Hall to Eaton’s. Floats included Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Wooden Soldiers and the Queen of Hearts.
By 1939, costumes were made of paper since materials were scarce during wartime.
The 1950s & 1960s
In 1952, the parade was televised for the first time. By the late 1950s, the parade had 13 large and 20 small floats along with over 2,000 participants.
In the mid-1960s, the Santa Claus Parade travelled east along Dupont St from Dovercourt Rd. It made its way along Davenport Rd and headed south along Yonge St to Eaton’s Queen St store. The parade cost over $100,000 to put together. Some of the floats featured mechanically operated animals guided by the use of periscopes.
Crowds were numbering in the 600,000’s, so the parade moved to University Ave to accommodate everyone. At 8:30 am, the parade began at Dovercourt Rd heading east on Dupont St. Turning south on Avenue Rd, it proceeded through Queen’s Park and down University Ave. It then turned east on Queen St W, finishing at Eaton’s Queen Street store at around 10 am.
In 1976, the parade, which was watched on TV by 30 million people, was moved from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon. There were complaints of traffic disruption and conflicts with the televised CFL payoffs. In 1981, the parade was held on November 1st. Many felt this was too early, however, if it was held in late November, it could be too cold for the children.
In August 1982, Eaton’s announced they would be sacking what would have been their 78th parade. The country was in a recession and the $500,000 cost of the parade outweighed its promotional benefits. That year, Eaton’s had nearly 70% of the details looked after.
Within three days, twenty corporations and the provincial government stepped up to save the parade. Picking up where Eaton’s left off, the parade was a go that year and held in mid-November, as usual. Since then, The Santa Claus Parade has been operated as a non-profit organization relying on sponsorships.
In 1983, the tradition of Celebrity Clowns began. Over 60 executives paid $1,000 each to march, entertain and give away balloons to children along the parade route. By 1995, more than 200 Celebrity Clowns led over 25 floats and 2,000 participants through downtown Toronto.
The Santa Claus Parade Today
In 2018, the 3-hour parade was put together by over 3,000 staff and volunteers. Around 5.5 km in length, the procession featured 32 floats, 21 marching bands, thousands of marchers in costume and those happy Celebrity Clowns with their miles-of-smiles.
In 2019, the parade began at Parliament St and headed west along Bloor St. Once at Queen’s Park, the procession turned south towards University Ave then east along Wellington St W. Once at Yonge St, the parade headed south and at Front St E, it turned northeast, back to Wellington St E and then east to finish at St Lawrence Market. Upwards of 1 million spectators come from miles around to watch one of the country’s longest-running traditions.
While the Parade usually takes place on the third Sunday in November, the 2020 and 2021 parades have been virtual, televised-only events. In all, about 1 km in length, the floats took a 90-minute ride from Santa’s workshop to Canada’s Wonderland in Vaughan to film the parade. On the first Saturday of December, people from across the country watched the Santa Claus Parade TV Special from home on CTV and CTV2. The spectacle included 24 floats, marching bands playing Christmas favourites, celebrities, musicians and more.
Timothy Eaton arrived in Canada from Ireland in the mid-1800s. In 1869, he and his wife opened a dry goods retail store on Yonge St and as space was needed, Mr Eaton purchased many properties on the north side of Queen St W at Yonge St and beyond. In 1907, Timothy Eaton passed away and his family looked after operating the business. Eaton’s dominated the retail industry, and stores were popping up across Canada, including their magnificent Eaton’s College Street store.
In the mid-1970s, Eaton’s department store on the northwest corner of Queen St W and Yonge St along with several other buildings were demolished for the construction of the Eaton Centre. In 1977, Toronto’s newest shopping centre at one of the country’s busiest corners opened. In 1999, Eaton’s closed and while they may not be around today, their name and the iconic parade they operated for over 75 years still are.
Did You Know?
- In the early years of the parade, after Santa passed by, parents would give their children a present from Santa they secretly brought with them. It would help to calm children that were upset that Santa was gone.
- Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade was a two-day event in 1910. It started in Newmarket and ended by travelling down Yonge St.
- In 1913, eight reindeer brought from Labrador were loaned to the parade by medical missionary Sir Wilfred Grenfell. The animals rested at the then Davisville Hotel, which is now a subway station. They had their own veterinarian and ate their special diet of moss. The crowds and excitement frightened the usually gentle reindeer, which caused them to nip at their handler. Pulling Santa and his bag full of toys proved to be somewhat challenging for the size of animals.
- In the mid-1910s, Eaton’s sold tickets for Santa Claus Receptions at Massey Hall. Before Old St Nick made his appearance at the now historic venue, everyone was regaled with music and entertainment.
- Special baskets were at one time attached to poles along the parade route for kids to drop their letters to Santa.
- Eaton’s also had Christmas parades in Montreal from 1905 to 1967 and in Winnipeg from 1925 to 1968.
- The Santa Claus Parade is the world’s longest-running children’s parade. It’s watched on TV in Ireland, New Zealand and Norway.
- Toronto’s parade predates Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade by 19 years.
Santa Claus Parade Photos
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Nov 23, 1914, pg 7
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Nov 19, 1915, pg 14
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Nov 15, 1918, pg 16
- The Globe Newspaper Archives: Nov 18, 1918, pg 8
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 15, 1966, pg 10
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Nov 13, 1974, pg 15
- The Globe and Mail Newspaper Archives: Aug 10, 1982, pg 1
- Toronto Star Newspaper Archives: Nov 19, 2018, pg GT1 & GT2
- The Santa Claus Parade
- Ontario Heritage Trust
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography: Eaton’s
- Toronto Star: Toronto Santa Claus Parade goes virtual again…
- Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade
- Vintage Photos: City of Toronto Archives, Toronto Public Library & The Santa Claus Parade