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Santa Claus parades or Christmas pageants are parades held in some countries to celebrate the official opening of the Christmas season with the arrival of Santa Claus. The parades usually include themed floats, dancing or marching groups and bands playing Christmas songs. They are moving pageants that typically end near the center of a city. Often sponsored by department stores, they may reinforce the store's brand recognition during the important Christmas shopping season.
It is a direct descendant of late Medieval and Renaissance revivals of Roman Triumphs, which had music and banners, wagons filled with the spoils of war, and climaxed with the dux riding in a chariot, preferably drawn by two horses, and thus called the biga. (A quadriga such as surmounts the Brandenburg Gate is drawn by four horses.) Similarly, the climax of a Santa Claus parade is always Santa in his sleigh, drawn by eight reindeer (an octigia). Roman Triumphs were themselves consciously modeled on ceremonies honoring the gods, and Santa Claus himself is the descendant of Saint Nicholas. The Santa Claus parade directly corresponds to the modern triumphal entry of Santa Claus.
Santa Claus parades are most common in North America. One of the oldest and largest is the Toronto Santa Claus Parade, held annually near the middle of November in Toronto, which was started in 1905 by the Eaton's department store. That year Santa arrived on a train and met Mr and Mrs. Timothy Eaton, then walked to the Eaton's Downtown store. The first float was introduced in 1908. It was one truck with a band to accompany Santa. It now has over 24 floats, 24 bands, and 1,700 participants, and is broadcast in several countries.
In Vancouver, the Rogers' Santa Claus Parade has also grown to be one of the largest, with 65 floats and bands. A special train also comes around in the parade, collecting donations for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank and the Lower Mainland Christmas Bureau. In 2005, the parade collected over 4,300 kg of food and 2,300 toy donations.
The department-store parade idea came to the U.S. in 1920 with Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia. the parade now known as the 6abc IKEA Thanksgiving Day Parade is the oldest Thanksgiving Day parade in the United States.
In New York City, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, famous for its giant helium-filled balloons, began in 1924, inspired by the Eaton's parade in Toronto, with Macy's employees in costume, and— a distinctively Roman touch— animals borrowed from the Central Park Zoo. The giant balloons made an early appearance, with Felix the Cat in 1927. The inflation of the balloons in the streets flanking the American Museum of Natural History the night before has become a traditional gathering for New York's Upper West Side.
Also in 1924, the J. L. Hudson Company staged its first Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit, Michigan. Among the early features were large papier-mâché heads similar to those seen by Hudson's display director, Charles Wendel, on a recent trip to Viareggio, Italy. The heads continue to be a feature in the annual event. Hudson's sponsored the parade until 1979 when it was turned over to a non-profit group. In 1983, it became the Michigan Thanksgiving Parade and is currently known as America's Thanksgiving Parade.
Peoria, Illinois has the longest running Santa Claus Parade in the U.S. The 125th parade is to be held November 23, 2012; 1887 marked the first year of the parade, which consisted of boats and derricks coming down the river as part of construction of the new bridge. In 1888, Peoria held a parade through town, celebrating the completion of the new Upper Free Bridge. The following December, Schipper and Block Department Store sponsored a parade that followed the same route and featured Santa Claus. Various attractions in the parade through the years include fireworks, circus wagons, a calliope, live reindeer and numerous parade floats. The parade was first televised in 1958.
As part of its city-wide Christmas celebrations, known as Gran Festival Navideño, Mexico City holds a parade on Eje Central. The 2011 version featured mobile machines that blew artificial snow on participants and spectators.
Elsewhere, especially in Commonwealth countries outside Canada, Santa Claus parades are usually known as Christmas pageants. The largest is the Adelaide Christmas Pageant, which was begun in 1933 and is held annually in November. The pageant is televised around Australia. Major pageants are also held in the New Zealand cities of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.