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. Oftentimes 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, 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. The largest is Toronto Santa Claus Parade, held annually near the middle of November in Toronto, which was started in 1905 by the Eaton's department store, with just a single float. It now has over 24 floats, 24 bands, and 1,700 participants. It is one of the biggest productions in North America, and is broadcast to many countries around the world.
In New York City, Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, famous for its giant helium-filled balloons, began in the 1920s, inspired by the Eaton's parade in Canada, 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.
Peoria, Illinois has the longest running Santa Claus Parade in the U.S. The 118th Parade was held November 25, 2005; 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.
The Hollywood Christmas Parade in Southern California is a seasonal tradition that somewhat competes with the Rose Parade and the Doo Dah Parade.
Elsewhere, especially in Commonwealth countries, 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.