Heather McRae remembers how the Calgary Santa Claus parade brought together different parts of the city to the downtown for a winter celebration.
More than a decade ago, the parade with ol’ Saint Nick ended in Calgary, after years of staging at the old planetarium and making its way down Stephen Avenue. The final year was 2006.
Originally an event put together by a group of volunteers in northwest Calgary, then later transferred to the Stephen Avenue Merchants Association, it was the then-Calgary Downtown Association that took it over at the turn of the millennium.
McRae, who was brought on to steer the event for five years in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said the initial goal was just to bring a wide range of people from across the city into the downtown on the weekend.
“In the 1990s, downtown really just emptied out on the weekends, people didn’t stick around,” said McRae.
“In that first year, we racked our brains as to what to do.”
It dawned on them to involve as many kids as possible to participate in the parade and then a host of immediate and extended family would come down to watch. It worked. They had a bigger attendance than they expected.
“And we did some really cool things that really accentuated it being a community event,” McRae said.
They bussed in kids from lower-income parts of Calgary and had volunteers at seniors’ homes knit them mittens and scarves for the parade.
“They were just encouraged to come and sing Christmas carols or do something like that,” she said.
“We were able to engage some people typically not engaged in that sort of thing.”
It was mostly a people parade, McRae said. Many of the Santa Claus parades that still occur in Canada’s major metropolitan centres involve large floats and other entries.
Calgary Santa Claus parade a ‘signature event’
Richard White, executive director of the Calgary Downtown Association at the time, said it certainly filled up the shopping areas after the event. He estimated that at its peak, more than 50,000 Calgarians came to the area for the event.
“I always thought that the Santa Claus parade is a signature event for a downtown and should be something that we not only do for the downtown merchant, but we do for the community,” said White, who started as CDA executive director in 1995 and stayed for 10 years.
“It was sad to see it go.”
White understood the mandate of the Downtown Calgary and their examination of the event’s return on investment. New executive team, new ideas, he said.
Hosting the event cost roughly $20,000 annually, White recalled, and that included road closures and other logistics. They had local media sponsors, including a live broadcast on Shaw community television.
The event wasn’t without challenges. Both White and McRae acknowledged that budgets were tight. Calgary’s unpredictable winter weather could mean a balmy 10C or a frigid -40C. One issue – and a good one to have – was that with it pushing 60,000 people lining the route, space along Stephen Avenue was shrinking.
In a 2010 blog post on getdown.ca, Downtown Calgary explained why the parade ended.
They noted the city already had a massive annual parade – the Calgary Stampede parade.
The blog also goes on to say that eventually, volunteer efforts were “dissolving,” rising City of Calgary event fees and road closure costs and construction along the route made continuing the event a challenge.
They pointed out that instead of promoting a half-day event for people to come downtown, they wanted to draw Calgarians down for the entire month. More events throughout the holidays was their answer.
Future Calgary Santa Claus parade?
McRae said there are a lot of great memories from the past Calgary Santa Claus parades.
Whether that’s Bert, who was their ‘heart and soul’ Santa, or the hundreds of kids – many of whom hadn’t travelled far outside their neighbourhood – taking part in the event.
“It’s all about those relationships; that’s really the best part of events is when you can create connection,” she said.
“Even for a brief time.”
Is there an appetite for the return of the jolly old elf to downtown Calgary? It’s a firm maybe.
Every year, some Calgarians take to social media and ask why there’s no Santa Claus parade in Calgary. They suggest the event should be resurrected.
Both White and McRae note the various events that now go on around the city during the holidays, including the Calgary Zoo’s Zoolights. There are Santa Claus parades in places like Banff; Santa rides around the streets of Okotoks in an old fire engine every year on Christmas Eve.
White doesn’t believe it would fly – reindeer or not. Primarily from a business perspective, he said. The downtown retail space isn’t particularly family-oriented anymore. Bringing that crowd downtown might not be worth it. Different events would be needed to draw the proper clientele, he said.
McRae said it’s a tough question. Calgary might need a little Christmas cheer right now.
“Maybe at a time that we seem to be so desperate to find something to feel good about, maybe it’s just the antidote, maybe that’s what we need.”