A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade

I was hoping that A Mile of Make-Believe: A History of the Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade by Steve Penfold would interest me more than it did. Its premise–a book about Christmas with local content–could hardly fail. When I got back from Tristan da Cunha and looked through my library to decide what to read next, I couldn’t resist this book, since the Toronto Santa Claus Parade was coming up in three weeks. I’d read it in time for the parade. Yet this history either sped along (I surprised myself how many pages I could get through in such a brief time) or it was a dull plod. The text was swamped with endless endnotes that I soon learned to read at the end of each chapter instead of flipping to the back after encountering each superscript. Rarely did any endnote provide me with further insight or detail. In spite of the speedy page-turning interludes I was never inspired to read this book other than during meal breaks at work or while riding public transit.

That said, I will rave about what I did like about this book. Black-and-white photos chronicling Eaton’s parade history filled its pages, and I when I saw the black square of a photo bleeding through the page I was currently reading, I couldn’t wait to finish the page to turn it over and see the snapshot from parade history. And the history was what drove the book. Even a prelude analyzing parade culture in general kept my attention. I could not, however, grasp the cutesy terminology of “the corporate fantastic” and “the civic fantastic” which overexplained each dynamic which kept the various Eaton’s Santa Claus Parades alive. The business side to the parades frequently went off-topic and I found the overuse of the terms’ “fantastic” in the text to be annoying. Perhaps Penfold was trying to conjure up a sense of whimsy and fun by transferring “the fantastic” to the corporate and civic sides of the parade, but it seemed affected.

I did enjoy Penfold’s vast research which involved combing through Toronto archives, Eaton’s archives and years and years of newspapers. Every year Eaton’s fielded complaints from parade viewers disappointed by the lack of religious imagery. Shouldn’t a Christmas parade have at least one religious float? What people didn’t realize is that Eaton’s didn’t start off with a religious parade and gradually drop religious imagery over the years; the parade never had it in the first place. The function of the parade since its beginning in 1905 was to draw public attention to Santa and his trip from the North Pole to Eaton’s toy department. It was a commercial endeavour since day one. Nevertheless, Eaton’s was prepared for those seeking a more spiritual function:

“Eaton’s planners appear to have dealt with these tensions by avoiding them. In every city and across the decades, the parades were consistently non-religious, apparently by design. In Toronto, [parade producer] Jack Brockie remained steadfastly opposed to addressing the religious basis of the holiday in the parade, despite intermittent public pressure and the company’s well-known reverence for its founder’s Victorian Methodism. In a typical letter, Mrs William Kingley wrote that the spectacle was wonderful but might recognize ‘the true meaning of Christmas’ by featuring a float of ‘the babe in the manger, the shepherds, and the star.’ Eaton’s officials always answered such letters politely, but normally pointed correspondents to the company’s Nativity Window on Yonge Street. On rare occasions, biblical symbols appeared in the parades, but they were normally recast to highlight colour, character, and even comedy. In 1920, a monkey sat on Noah’s Ark ‘contentedly smoking a pipe,’ while four decades later a float of the same biblical story presented ‘a fully stocked menagerie’ with Noah in a blue sailor suit being towed by ‘two frisky blue whales.’ Neither was likely to please a devout Christian.”

Decades of the parade changed the way the public reacted to the onset of Christmas. For some, it gave them permission to start planning and decorating. No one could accuse them of starting too early if the parade had already come and gone:

“Finally, Santa in public requires an understanding of the contested and complicated definitions of the Christmas season itself. Almost everyone agreed that 25 December was Christmas Day, but no one seemed sure when the more nebulous Christmas season should begin. The absence of any clear calendrical or official definition, in the end, allowed the Santa Claus parade to define the beginning of the season. By appearing in public space, then, the Eaton’s Santa helped to shape public time.”

Eaton’s took its parade on the road and for decades Winnipeg, Montreal, Calgary and Edmonton hosted their own version of the Eaton’s parade. Some, like Montreal, even used the Toronto floats. With the advent of television broadcasting in 1952, the parade took on a new focus of corporate branding. With cameras beaming the parade from coast to coast, it was a chance for Eaton’s to run an hour-long commercial at the same time. The television era brought the company name to the fore, with floats branded by the Eaton’s logo and parade theme names changed:

“Overall themes eventually included the company’s name, so that typical 1950s ‘Parade of Merry Times’ (1957) or ‘Santa’s Carousel of Color’ (1960) gave way to ‘At Eaton’s Christmas Comes to Life’ and ‘Let Eaton’s Share a Special Moment with You’ (1973 and 1974).”

Although professional hosts and news anchors hosted the parade for television, nonetheless, scripts were prepared in advance. It would have been unappealing to the audience–mainly children–for the hosts to reel off a series of statistics about the length of each float or the number of sequins used in princesses’ gowns. Thus the writers created the parade scripts with a sense of wide-eyed whimsy so that they could be read straight off the page for their intended childhood audience. The hosts therefore did not have to reinterpret boring statistics into a wondrous story on live television. In addition to these descriptions the writers sprinkled the scripts liberally with Eaton’s references. I am glad that Penfold had access to parade producer Jack Brockie’s postmortem parade reviews of the broadcast wherein he “…often complained that commentators didn’t follow the script, and (perhaps most disturbingly) forgot to mention Eaton’s.”

I attended the final Eaton’s Santa Claus Parade, the 77th, on November 1, 1981. I recall that no one I spoke to liked the early parade date, the earliest in the parade’s history. I even remember seeing children whose faces still had traces of make-up whiskers and dark noses from their previous night’s Halloween costumes. The following year was the first Metro Santa Claus Parade, after Eaton’s shocked the nation that August by announcing it was cancelling the 1982 parade as a cost-saving measure. Penfold shared the reasons for the Eaton’s parade pullout and the efforts by corporate and civic officials to keep the parade alive. He also had the perspective of economic history to analyze the decline of department store culture in general and how the mismanagement of Eaton’s led to its bankruptcy in 1999. I attended this first ever Metro Santa Claus Parade on November 14 at its start on Christie Street. Thankfully the parade has continued every year since Eaton’s pulled out, and the successive numbering has reverted to its start in 1905. Thus the parade this year on Sunday, November 19 will be the official 113th annual.

For a superior visual history of the parade, I recommend the Global Television Production from 2004 “100 Years of the Santa Claus Parade”. I watch it every year. Penfold provided a valuable history of the parade if you can withstand the lengthy sociological and economic tangents which detract from the story. The author proved his point about Eaton’s in that:

“Eaton’s did not invent the Santa Claus parade–there were a few scattered versions in other North American cities before 1905–but it was an important player in their redefinition into a sophisticated form of commercial art and popular culture.”

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