Santa Claus Parade – A Toronto Tradition for Over 115 Years

1925 - Crowded street and windows plus Santa on the second-floor balcony of Eaton's Queen St W and Yonge St store
1925 – Crowded street and windows plus Santa on the second-floor balcony of Eaton’s Queen St W and Yonge St store (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 6695)

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.

1926 - Wooden Soldiers float at Albert St and Chestnut St, looking northwest towards the University Avenue Armouries that were once behind Osgoode Hall
1926 – Wooden Soldiers float at Albert St and Chestnut St, looking northwest towards the University Avenue Armouries that were once behind Osgoode Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 9440)

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.

1977 - Santa and his Reindeer on an Ice Floe float on Queen's Park, looking northwest towards the McLaughlin Planetarium
1977 – Santa and his Reindeer on an Ice Floe float on Queen’s Park, looking northwest towards the McLaughlin Planetarium (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 99, Item 20)

The 1970s

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.

The 1980s

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.

2019 - A Celebrity Clown with Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders
2019 – A Celebrity Clown with Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders (courtesy of The Santa Claus Parade)

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.

About Eaton’s

1897 - T. Eaton Co Limited Christmas Catalogue (Toronto Public Library OHQ-BOOKS-C-W-210)
1897 – T. Eaton Co Limited Christmas Catalogue (Toronto Public Library OHQ-BOOKS-C-W-210)

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.

1965 - Mother Goose float and her helpers, looking northwest from Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd
1965 – Mother Goose float and her helpers, looking northwest from Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 492, Item 32)

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

1918 - Crowds on Queen St W watching Santa getting ready to climb the ladder to Toyland on the second floor of Eaton's Queen St W and Yonge St store, looking northwest
1918 – Crowds on Queen St W watching Santa getting ready to climb the ladder to Toyland on the second floor of Eaton’s Queen St W and Yonge St store, looking northwest (Archives of Ontario I0020538)
1925 - Crowds on James St and Santa on the second-floor balcony of Eaton's Queen St W and Yonge St store
1925 – Crowds on James St and Santa on the second-floor balcony of Eaton’s Queen St W and Yonge St store (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 6695)
1926 - Large Dolls rounding the corners of Osgoode (no longer there), Chestnut and Albert Sts in Eaton's Santa Claus Parade
1926 – Large Dolls rounding the corners of Osgoode (no longer there), Chestnut and Albert Sts in Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 9439)
1930 - Mother Goose float at Albert St and Chestnut St (these streets no longer meet) in Eaton's Santa Claus Parade
1930 – Mother Goose float at Albert St and Chestnut St (these streets no longer meet) in Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 22531)
1930 - Cinderella and her horse-drawn carriage travelling east on Albert St in Eaton's Santa Claus Parade
1930 – Cinderella and her horse-drawn carriage travelling east on Albert St in Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 22533)
1926 - Wooden Soldiers float at Albert St and Chestnut St, looking northwest towards the University Avenue Armouries that were once behind Osgoode Hall
1926 – Wooden Soldiers float at Albert St and Chestnut St, looking northwest towards the University Avenue Armouries that were once behind Osgoode Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 9440)
1926 - Santa on his float rounding the streets once behind Osgoode Hall
1926 – Santa on his float rounding the streets once behind Osgoode Hall (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 9446)
1925 - A very long walking dog in Eaton's Santa Claus Parade
1925 – A very long walking dog in Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade (Archives of Ontario I0020441)
1934 - Santa being drawn by four horses on University Ave just south of Elm St, looking north towards Queen's Park
1934 – Santa being drawn by four horses on University Ave just south of Elm St, looking north towards Queen’s Park (City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail Fonds, Fonds 1266, Item 35341)
1944 - The Santa Claus Parade passing the southwest corner of Bloor St W at Bathurst St
1944 – The Santa Claus Parade passing the southwest corner of Bloor St W at Bathurst St (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 93437)
1945 - The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe float travelling past the Registry of Deeds and Land Titles building, once at the northeast corner of Albert St and Chestnut St which no longer meet
1945 – The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe float travelling past the Registry of Deeds and Land Titles building, once at the northeast corner of Albert St and Chestnut St which no longer meet (City of Toronto Archives, Globe and Mail Fonds, Fonds 1266)
1956 - Baton Twirlers in the Santa Claus Parade, heading south on Queens Park Cres W, in front of Hart House at the University of Toronto
1956 – Baton Twirlers in the Santa Claus Parade, heading south on Queens Park Cres W, in front of Hart House at the University of Toronto (City of Toronto Archives, Series 975, File 2306, ID 33463-13)
1956 - A tractor pulling the January Fun in the Snow float passing by the Hart House at University of Toronto
1956 – A tractor pulling the January Fun in the Snow float passing by the Hart House at University of Toronto (City of Toronto Archives, Series 975, File 2306, ID 33463-3)
1960s - The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe float at Queens Park Cres W, heading towards University Ave during the Santa Claus Parade
1960s – The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe float at Queens Park Cres W, heading towards University Ave during the Santa Claus Parade (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 492, Item 47)
1960s - Voyage of the Treasure Ship float at Queens Park Cres W, heading south towards University Ave
1960s – Voyage of the Treasure Ship float at Queens Park Cres W, heading south towards University Ave (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 492, Item 44)
1960s - Humpty Dumpty float at Queens Park Cres W near University Ave during the Santa Claus Parade
1960s – Humpty Dumpty float at Queens Park Cres W near University Ave during the Santa Claus Parade (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 492, Item 47)
1965 - Eaton's float for the Jubilee year of the Santa Claus Parade, near Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd
1965 – Eaton’s float for the Jubilee year of the Santa Claus Parade, near Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 492, Item 35)
1965 - Jack and Jill float at Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd
1965 – Jack and Jill float at Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 492, Item 36)
1965 - Marchers in the Santa Claus Parade, looking northwest from Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd
1965 – Marchers in the Santa Claus Parade, looking northwest from Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 492, Item 33)
1965 - Mother Goose float and her helpers, looking northwest from Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd
1965 – Mother Goose float and her helpers, looking northwest from Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 492, Item 32)
1965 - The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf float at Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd
1965 – The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf float at Davenport Rd and Bedford Rd (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 492, Item 38)
1969 - Cinderella float in front of Eaton's College Street store, looking northwest on Yonge St
1969 – Cinderella float in front of Eaton’s College Street store, looking northwest on Yonge St (Archives of Ontario I0020367)
1969 - Santa in front of A&A Records and Sam the Record Man on Yonge St
1969 – Santa in front of A&A Records and Sam the Record Man on Yonge St (Archives of Ontario I0020377)
1974 - The Upside-Down Chicken performers in Eaton's Santa Claus Parade, looking north on Queen's Park Cres W
1974 – The Upside-Down Chicken performers in Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, looking north on Queen’s Park Cres W (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 99, Item 19)
1974 - Hatching egg float in the Santa Claus Parade, rounding the corner onto Queen's Park Cres W
1974 – Hatching egg float in the Santa Claus Parade, rounding the corner onto Queen’s Park Cres W (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 9, Item 17)
1977 - Santa and his Reindeer on an Ice Floe float on Queen's Park, looking northwest towards the McLaughlin Planetarium and the Park Plaza Hotel
1977 – Santa and his Reindeer on an Ice Floe float on Queen’s Park, looking northwest towards the McLaughlin Planetarium and the Park Plaza Hotel (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1526, File 99, Item 20)
2018 - Santa on his sleigh in Toronto's Santa Claus Parade
2018 – Santa on his sleigh (courtesy of The Santa Claus Parade)
2018 - Kelly's Heroes band, looking north on Queens Park
2018 – Kelly’s Heroes band, looking north on Queens Park (courtesy of The Santa Claus Parade)
2019 - A Celebrity Clown with Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders
2019 – A Celebrity Clown with Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders (courtesy of The Santa Claus Parade)
2019 - The Tim Horton's float on Queen's Park, just south of Bloor St W
2019 – The Tim Horton’s float on Queen’s Park, just south of Bloor St W (courtesy of The Santa Claus Parade)
2019 - The Santa Claus Parade heritage plaque located on the northwest corner of Queen St W and James St - Eaton's store was once on the northeast corner of these two streets
2019 – The Santa Claus Parade heritage plaque located on the northwest corner of Queen St W and James St – Eaton’s store was once on the northeast corner of these two streets
1897 - T. Eaton Co Limited Christmas Catalogue (Toronto Public Library OHQ-BOOKS-C-W-210)
1897 – T. Eaton Co Limited Christmas Catalogue (Toronto Public Library OHQ-BOOKS-C-W-210)
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