The Santa Claus float at the parade on November 17, 1956.
Photo from City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, S0975, File 2306, id 33463-1
The first Santa Claus parade in Toronto dates back to the early years of the 20th century. It was the idea of Timothy Eaton, founder of the The T. Eaton Company, established in 1869 (Eaton’s). Timothy was likely influenced to create the parade by his wife Margaret and his son, John. During most of the 20th century, Eaton’s was Canada’s largest retailers. Its flagship department store was located on the northwest corner of Yonge Street and Queen Street West. The store was demolished and today’s Eaton Centre opened on the site in 1977. The modern-day shopping centre derives its name from this store, which when the Eaton Centre opened was the largest store in the plaza. Today, Sears occupies the site of the Eaton Store.
The first parade in Toronto was held on December 2, 1905, a cold and windy day. Santa arrived by train at the city’s old Union Station, constructed in 1884 (since demolished). He departed from the station in his Yuletide costume, over his shoulder a bulging heavy sack of toys and gifts. Laughing loudly and waving to the assembled crowds, he stepped aboard a horse-drawn cart and journeyed from Union Station to the Eaton Store. Along the route, he distributed toys from his pack to exited children along the route.
The following year, Santa appeared in a large coach, referred to as a “tally-ho” coach, pulled by four massive white horses. Rather than journeying to the department store, he went to Massey Hall, where they held a massive pageant. During the following years, Santa rode to various locations in many different modes of travel – a chariot, a silver fish, a real airplane, and the caboose of a train. In 1917 the store decided that following the parade, Eaton’s Toyland would be the permanent destination for Santa.
The parade grew throughout the years and by 1944, it was the largest in North America. The decorated floats, paper mache heads, and numerous costumes were designed and built in a large warehouse entirely by Eaton’s own craftsmen. The floats, placed on large carts and wagons were pulled in the early years by horses, but were eventually replaced by tractors. When a parade ended, the workers immediately commenced working to create the following year’s parade.
The following quote is from the book, “The Store That Timothy Built,” written by William Stephenson, published by McClelland and Stewart Limited in 1969 for the 100th anniversary of the T. Eaton Company. The following passage is from chapter entitled, “The Happiest Day of the Year.”
Easily the happiest and most popular way Eaton’s has devised to meet its customers is the Santa Claus Parade, held on a Saturday morning in November. Costing close to $100,000 to mount, stretching for at least a mile and a half, entailing the talents of 500 musicians, 1100 school children and two Santas, a visible one and a spare, both of whose identities are closely guarded secrets – Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, in the flesh and on nation-wide colour television, officially inaugurates the hectic, joyous melee known as Christmas shopping.
In Toronto, where the parade is designed and first shown – and again in Montreal, where it is re-enacted the following Saturday – crowds estimated by newspapers of 600,000 in each city line the streets to cheer the colourful, noisy procession. Eaton’s sponsored TV colourcast over both English and French networks also reaches about four million other Canadians by actual surveys.
The parade is also taped for television over the Colombia Broadcasting System in the United States where its audience is estimated at 25 million, and a 16-mm colour film of the event each year for showing across Canada and around the world.
What makes the Eaton Parade so unique is that, alone of major parades, it features mainly fairy-tale and make-believe characters – not current stars of movies and TV; Paul Castle, the voice of Mickey Mouse, was allowed in the 1968 parade only because it was the 40th anniversary of the pie-eared rodent’s debut on the silver screen. Nor does the Eaton’s parade ever use grotesque heads, like those made for Mardi Gras parades in Brazil or Italy and resold to some U.S. stores for their Christmas parades; all the heads in the Eaton’s Parade are comical, not frightening.
Eaton’s is the only parade that makes and owns its own costumes, more than 1000 of them. All the others rent them just for the day. Big stores like Macy’s in New York, Hudson’s in Detroit, Gimbel Brothers in Philadelphia, also stick to their own personnel for the marchers and riders. But Eaton’s gets thousand of applications each year from children wanting to be in the parade – so many that it has to ask some children to wait as long as three years – and is pleased to pay each a small fee for the day’s effort, plus hot chocolate and cookies at a convenient spot.
For seventy-seven years, Eaton’s sponsored it and paid all the expenses. Though Eaton’s kept the commercialization to a minimum, the parade generated unbelievable publicity and created thousands of loyal customers, who expressed their appreciation by shopping at the department store.
In 1982, Eaton’s relinquished their sponsorship of the parade, and a volunteer group assumed responsibility. The parade has changed since the group took it over, but the parade’s popularity has never waned. Today, it remains the signal for all of Toronto, especially the children, that the Christmas season has officially begun.
To view other trips down memory lane in Toronto of old.
Celebrating Victoria Day in Canada in yesteryear
Old Movie Houses of Toronto
Memories of the CNE today and in yesteryears
Listening the the Eaton’s Christmas radio broadcasts of Santa Claus in the 1940s and trimming the Xmas tree
Visiting Toyland on the fifth floor of the old Eaton’s store in the 1940s
Remembering the La Chaumiere Restaurant on Church Street in Toronto
Recalling the amber-coloured crinkly bottles of Orange Crush soda pop
Looking back at the restaurant prices in Toronto during the 1950s
The opening of Toronto’s Yonge Street subway in March 1955.
The classroom Valentine Day boxes in schools in the 1940s and 1950s
The old Lux Burlesque Theatre on College Street in the 1960s
Amazing streetcar trips in Toronto of old
Celebrating New Year’s Eve in Toronto today as compared to yesteryears
Memories of Toronto’s Sunnyside on a sweltering hot summer day
New Year’s Eve in Toronto in 1945 –the first year after the end of the Second World War
I22 people perish in a disaster on Toronto’s waterfront in 1949: CNE Horticultural Building employed as a morgue
The old Toronto Island ferries of my childhood – The trillium, Bluebell, and Primrose