Longest Running in the USA!
Peoria's 136th Annual Santa Claus Parade
Peoria Area Community Events (PACE) is pleased to announce the theme of the 136th Annual Santa Claus Parade is “Musical Notes and Holiday Floats”. The parade, scheduled to step off at 10:30 a.m. on , is the longest running holiday parade in the country. The parade features costumed characters, novelty walking units, decorated floats, marching bands, and of course Santa Claus.
Costumes and floats depicting the parade theme “Musical Notes and Holiday Floats” will compete for awards presented for the Best Novelty Unit, Best Overall Unit, Best New Entry, Best Commercial Float Entry, Best Non-Profit Float Entry, and Best Religious Float Entry.
Applications are now available for entering the 2023 Santa Claus Parade and can be downloaded on this page. Area businesses and organizations wishing to participate should contact PACE at (309) 691-3553. All entries must be submitted by .
Best Commercial Float: Saxony Court Senior Living
Best Commercial Float: Aaron Kilgore State Farm
Best Non Profit Float: The Y's Riverplex
Best Non Profit Float: Nitche Theater Arts NFP
Best Novelty Entry: Royal Family Dance Team
Best Overall Unit “SANTA AWARD”: The Y's Riverplex
2023 marks the 136th year of the Santa Claus Parade…. The oldest continuously running parade in the nation.
In 1887 the start of construction on the Upper Free bridge over the Illinois River was the reason for the first Santa Claus Parade. Boats and derricks with 50 stone masons formed the parade which came down the river from Chillicothe.
In 1888 the opening of the new bridge was celebrated with a procession of decorated business wagons…Businesses along the downtown parade route were also decorated. It proved to be an instant success and evolved into an annual celebration marking the opening of the Christmas Season. *The bridge was replaced by the Murray Baker Bridge in 1958 carrying I74 traffic
In 1889 Shipper and Block (later Block & Kuhl) began a 72-year commitment as sole sponsor of the Santa Claus Parade. With the department store as its sponsor, the parade was held, and still is held, the day after Thanksgiving which was the official start of the Holiday Season.
In the early days of the parade, Santa Claus traveled the parade route in a coach drawn by 6 black horses. Years later, Santa arrived from the North Pole by train. In the early 1900’s Santa’s “Toytown Express” brought him into Union Station (the Rock Island Depot) where he was greeted by Spencer’s Band which escorted him to the department store thru the streets of downtown Peoria, as the finale in the parade.
Fireworks were set off from the roof of the department store signaling the start of the parade. The fire escape on the side of the “Big White Store” provided a dramatic finale for the parade thru the years because Santa would climb the fire escape to the 5th floor Toy Department where hundreds of children were lined up to give him their Christmas lists at the “Magical North Pole Workshop.”
In 1938 a workshop was assembled in the window of Block & Kuhl under the clock. The workshop was animated with icy cliffs in the background and a warm cozy workshop up front. The gnomes hammered and sawed, put wheels on wagons, polished sleds and curled the hair of the dolls. Each time you saw it, there was something you hadn’t noticed the time before, but you never missed Santa sitting in his office checking over his books, writing the names of all the good little boys and girls. The display cost $2,500 to create and had taken a year to make.
Each year something new would be added. Bergner’s also had an animated window in their store right across the street, it was much like the one at Block & Kuhl’s. People in Peoria and surrounding communities would make it a tradition to come see the windows of these two stores and all the decorations of all the downtown stores, plus take in the parade.
Another staple of the Peoria Holiday tradition that never lost its appeal over the years, are the Parade Floats which were the creation of the Block & Kuhl department store. They were built in their store ranging from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves to Ichabod Crane, Schoolmaster. Floats became an integral part in the parade. Contests were held between departments at the store to create designs and construct the floats.
If you lived in Peoria in the 1940’s and 50’s you will probably remember the elaborate circus wagons which were used in the parade. One of them was the France Bandwagon constructed in 1917 and weighed 7,840 pounds. Block & Kuhl donated the Circus Wagons to /circus World Museum located in Baraboo Wisconsin in 1961. They were brought to Peoria by train just for the parade.
In 1958 the Circus wagons were joined in the parade lineup by a completely restored calliope built around 1890 by the National Calliope co. of Kansas City, Missouri and was bought by Block & Kuhl from the Hagenback-Wallace Circus. It had 43 solid brass pipes operated by 43 keys and was described as a super-deluxe model. It was originally steam operated and later converted to air operation in 1916. Unfortunately, it was lost in a fire
A mainstay in the parade for several years was a green caterpillar that would snake its way down Main Street operated by children who were paid 50 cents each.
In 1950 the parade featured six tiny, live reindeer riding on Santa’s float that were obtained from a farm near Aurora, Nebraska.
Between 1961 and 1966 Carson Pirie Scott “The Big White Store” assumed sponsorship of the parade as well as the new owners of the Block & Kuhl Store. When Carson Pirie Scott took over the department store they too continued hosting the Santa Parade
1957 was the first year that the parade was televised live on WMBD-TV with sponsorship of the telecast by South Side Bank. A chance meeting between William Ward, Chairman of the Board of South Side Bank (and a parade enthusiast), and Bob Runnerstrom, the station manager for WMBD-TV, while travelling from Chicago to Peoria, sparked a partnership which spanned over the past 46 years. Their intent was to televise it live for the benefit of the elderly, disabled and people who were unable to view it along the downtown streets. William Ward stressed that the parade was for the children and the community and not meant to be an advertising campaign. He approached its sponsorship as a public service and not an advertising tool. Commercials about the bank are done at the opening and closing of the telecast and during breaks in the parade but no scenes of the parade are ever taken away for commercials. Fortunately for Peoria, Mark Joseph, the past chairman of the board Pat Ward at South Side Bank inherited his late father’s penchant for parades and he passed it on to his son Jeff Ward and they have continued the tradition Bank The bank has continued to telecast the parade after William Ward’s death as a tribute to him. Busey Bank purchased South Side Bank in 2017 and is now the sponsor of the parade.
The weather and a pandemic pose the biggest threat to the parade each year. Several times it appeared that it would be cancelled because of icy conditions. In fact, one year Santa’s sleigh was frozen between the tracks, but finally freed in time for the parade. Several years ago, it was so windy that entries had a hard time keeping their floats together and by the time they reached the telecast area it was hard to describe what they even were. During the 2019 and 2020 COVID pandemic the parade was held as a drive by event. The PACE floats and other entries parked their displays along Main and Monroe Streets in Downtown Peoria for families to drive by and enjoy the parade. Then the units were moved down the streets for a live television presentation on WMBD-TV. Just like the U.S. Mail, rain, sleet, snow and wind, the parade has never been cancelled, therefore maintaining the distinction as the oldest continuously running parade in the nation.
In 1966, the Peoria Christmas tradition expanded to the Festival of Lights at the Peoria County Courthouse. Santa would turn on the lights at the end of the parade to signal the start of the Holiday Shopping Season. Now the lights are turned on during the “Yule Like Peoria Walk-a-bout” festivities the evening of the parade.
In 1966 also marked the establishment of the not-for-profit Central Illinois Santa Parade, Inc. which replaced Carson Pere Scott as the parade organizer and sponsor and became a community run event with many businesses participating under the leadership of the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce.
An incident occurred in 1976 which might very well have cancelled the parade. 18 floats became the target of vandalism when they were removed from indoor storage at Exposition Gardens during the Heart of Illinois Fair. Even the heads of Santa’s Reindeer were torn off. It was estimated that the cost to rebuild the floats would exceed $30,000. Businesses and individuals rallied to the rescue donating money and labor to completely rebuild the floats in time for the parade.
In 1984 the parade was turned over to the Peoria Downtown Redevelopment Council and in 1987 it was taken over by the Peoria Area Convention & Visitors Bureau until 1989 when PACE – Peoria Area Community Events – was formed by combining the Take Pride in Peoria Commission and the event arm of the Convention & Visitors Bureau to promote the Peoria Area by providing a variety of events in Peoria throughout the year.
Since PACE has taken over the organization of the parade, many features have been added to the parade. There have been many notables as the Grand Marshall of the parade. We have had sports celebrities such as Joe Gerardi (baseball - player for the Yankees) and Jim Thome (baseball – Cubs), the Ninja Turtles – Michael Angelo, Ronald McDonald and Bozo the Clown, along with political figures such as Bob Michel and Mayor Maloof, Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, community leaders such as Pete Vonachen and George Manias; Oscar winter Tami Lane, Extreme House Makeover (Jake Grys & family), Olympic winners: Matt Savoie (skater), Time Broe (500 meters), Vic Wunderely (archery), and animated characters like Snowden (Target), Aortic Bart (Bergner’s), Angelica from the TV series Rugrats, the Men & Women of the Armed Forces and Jim Thome First Responders to name a few.
Traditionally leading off the parade are the local Color Guards from the Peoria Police, Fire Department, American Legion and Amvets Post 64. The parade wouldn’t be a parade without the Mohammed Shrine Units and their clowns much to the delight of the children along the route.
Each year a theme is selected for the parade and a contest is held and trophies are awarded for those entries that use the theme best for their floats, novelty units, religious units and horse units. For many years there was a school bands competition, with David Vroman, the Bradley University Band Director heading up the judges.
There are two original floats in the parade maintained by PACE, the Conestoga Wagon and the Old Woman in the Shoe. They have been well maintained over the years.
Nothing had been done to them floats since the 1976 vandalism, so in 1994 a group of enthusiastic and talented volunteers formed a committee of 12 people who spent the summer at Seaway Marina boat storage area, rebuilding completely, 5 floats, (designed by Laura and Mark Burdess and Robin and Scott Barnes) and remodeled the other six floats.
New floats included Christmas Under the Sea with a live mermaid, large globe, Royal Crown Throne with costumed princesses, Gingerbread House made by Laura Burdess and her mother, Toon Town which was a project with Pekin’s parade committee, and Red Circus Wagon for a Gorilla. The Children’s Train was painted by the Independent Insurance Agents Association of Central IL. We have continued to put finishing touches on them and add costumes for the characters to go with each float each year.
We have continued to put finishing touches on them and add costumes for the characters to go with each float each year.
There are four original floats that are still being used in the parade; the Conestoga Wagon, Circus Wagon, and 3 Men in a Tub. Over the years they have been redecorated but have the same steel wheel farm wagon base. The Old Women in a Shoe is also one of the originals maintained by the Peoria Area Telephone Pioneers Retirees for many years and in 2000 they donated the float to PACE.
In 1995 out of nowhere a gentleman by the name of Larry Calhoun called and asked if he could build a Santa Float. He had been to the parade that year and couldn’t believe that we did not have a sleigh for Santa. He explained that he had built many fiberglass characters and cars for Disneyland in Florida. He built not only a beautiful sleigh, but 9 tiny reindeer, including Rudolph. He also constructed Santa’s Workshop which made its debut in 2005. In 2017 he added horses on the Cinderella float and in 2019 a new snowy bed for the Holiday Express Train.
Starting in 1996 PACE volunteers began working with David Haase, Kurt Beckman, and Mark Knight. These three creative gentlemen created beautiful decorations for the Lakeview Museum’s biannual galas and then donated some of them to the Santa Parade. The first theme was Cinderella and part of the décor included a life size horse drawn carriage. After the event the carriage mounted onto a trailer for the parade. Two other floats created by the David Haase Association include a wood Pirate Ship and the Holiday Express Train.
For years the Santa Parade Floats were stored in various warehouses, thanks to several area businesses, such as Sprinkmann Insulation Inc. In 2001 the floats were moved into their new warehouse on Park Ave in Peoria, then in 2015 PACE built a second warehouse on the same lot.
In 2002 Home for the Holidays float was added to the parade. The 150-year-old sleigh had been in the Davis Family and was mounted on a float depicting a vintage sleigh ride to Grandmothers house. The float was created and built by Jennifer Wyss, Todd Davis and Susie Stockman in 10 days.
In 2005 Christmas Under the Sea base was redesigned and rebuilt by Robin & Scott Barnes bring it down to street level. New fish costumes were added to the float and made by Kathy Montefusco.
In 2006 Christmas with the Simpson’s was added to the parade. The float was designed and constructed by Shirlee Zook, Robin and Mike Floyd, Tina and Jimmy Wendland and Larry Calhoun. The characters on the float were built by the Heat and Frost Insulators Local #17, Chicago, IL using only materials from insulation products.
In 2007 The Flintstones Christmas Follies float depicting the Bedrock Diner Drive-in including two cars, was added to the parade and built by many members of the PACE Board of Directors and friends. Costumes representing all the characters were made for people riding on the float.
In 2012 two new floats were built. The Chinese North Lions float was designed by Shirlee Wendland. Fred Showalter built the arch Pagoda. The two colorful silk dance costumes were donated to the parade in 2006 from Price Waterhouse Cooper LLP.
The other 2012 new float was A Christmas Story from the 1940’s traditional movie. Par-a-Dice donated the funds to build the float. This whimsical float was designed by Erica Cronk and created and built by Todd Davis. The 7’ leg lamp was made in Gibbon, Nebraska and Scott & Robin Barnes made the lamp shade and skirting for the float.
In 2013 a new Gingerbread House was built by Robin and Scott Barnes and a cobblestone street was added to the Cinderella Float. Each year we take on a new float to refurbish or remodel.
In 2017 the 3 Men in a Tub float was remodeled. This float is one of the original floats in the parade and has the wide steel farm wagon wheels. All work is done by dedicated volunteers.
In 2019 the Santa Express Train was remodeled. A new paint job and lights were added.
In 2022 the Whoville Merry Grinchmas float entered the PACE lineup created by Paul Kluber, and Robin Barnes. The characters around the Christmas tree were created and made by Pat Rice.
In 2022 New elves were added to Santa’s Workshop, created by Pat Rice and her son David Rice.
Circus Wagons have been a tradition with the parade, and in 2023 a new Calliope Wagon will be in the lineup. Thanks to the hard work of Paul Kluber, Scott, and Robin Barnes.
All PACE floats usually have live characters on them except for the Chinese Lion and Simpson’s float. Normally we utilize approximately 100 children from schools, daycares, Girl and Boy Scout troop, area high school key clubs to ride on or walk near the floats.
PACE owns the following floats: Children’s Christmas Train, Christmas with the Simpson’s, Christmas Story, Chinese “North” Lions, The Flintstone Follies, Cinderella Carriage, The Old Women Who Lived in a Shoe, Circus Calliope Wagon, Looney Toon Town, Gingerbread House, Stagecoach, Christmas Under the Sea, Mayfly Magical Treasure Ship, Christmas Around the World, Frosty the Snowman, Home for the Holidays, Santa Express Train, Three Men in a Tub, Whoville Merry Grinchmas; Santa’s Workshop, and Santa’s Sleigh.
PACE events and sponsorships have provided funding for the Santa Parade, and for many years the Yule Like Peoria Walk-a-bout event that followed the parade Friday evening.