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first person

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Illustration by Joy Kim

The first time I heard about Santa Claus was when the parade came to town. Growing up, my father was a butcher in Toronto’s Kensington Market, back then it was the Jewish market in the heart of downtown. My family didn’t even celebrate Christmas but that didn’t mean I couldn’t fall in love with the city’s Santa Claus Parade, one of the world’s largest Santa parades.

When I was about 5 years old, the parade passed within a block of our house. On that morning, my mother bundled me up to the point of absurdity and sent me out in the street with a Thermos full of hot chocolate and my 11-year-old sister as temporary guardian. I was mesmerized by the crowd. Vendors sold popcorn, candy apples and hot chestnuts, a food I was unfamiliar with. One salesman was walking through the crowd swinging a whistling bird on a stick. I remember wanting one so desperately, but we’d been sent out without any money

Through the eyes of a child, the parade was larger than life with giant floats, marching bands, snowmen, elves and magical storybook creatures. Clowns were everywhere. And while I loved the roly-poly clowns, the upside-down clowns were my favourite. I was delighted when one stopped to shake hands with his feet. But the highlight was the floats. I thought the coolest floats were the ones with moving parts.

I was fascinated by the costumed children sitting on the floats – always waving to the crowd. Who were these children? How did they come to occupy their vaulted position on top of a float? Whoever they were, I knew I wanted to be one of them. I wanted to be in the parade. I wanted to wave as the entire city lined the streets to see me. This quickly became my ultimate fantasy.

But I was also a realist. We were an immigrant family of modest means. There was no way my family could be able to find an entry point into the parade.

When I was 10, we moved further north and I stopped going to the parade as an annual event. In the next few decades, I would occasionally intersect with it, rekindling my childhood fascination. For a short time during my teenage years, my father owned a souvenir store on Yonge Street. The parade would pass right by but, sadly, sitting inside on parade day, all I could see were backsides.

About 20 years later, I was able to see the parade again through my children’s eyes. I was delighted that the upside clowns had survived the test of time and were still attempting to shake my daughter’s hand with their feet.

To me, the parade was as magnificent as ever. I still loved the floats, particularly the mechanical ones. But now I also enjoyed watching the costumed marchers and the bands. Just like in my first parade, I was fascinated by the crowd. It was Toronto at its best: People from every part of the city gathered to have a giant street party in peace and fellowship.

I realized that I still wanted to be in it. Happily, I discovered the parade is always looking for volunteers. The next year my youngest daughter was asked to be a snowflake princess on the Toyland float, and I signed up to be a parade marshal.

The job was pretty easy. Our primary focus was keeping children safe and making sure the costumed marchers stayed in a straight line (and that last one is not as easy as it sounds). I wasn’t supposed to interact with the crowd at all but I found it next to impossible to stop myself from watching so many adoring onlookers as I walked past. It was a heady experience. Some kids wanted to shake my hand. Others thrust their letters to Santa at me, which I collected and deposited in a mailbox at the end of the parade.

I returned to volunteer every year thereafter. My daughter would graduate from a float kid to a marcher and eventually dropped out of the parade. But I continued. My granddaughter became a float kid. Then after a few years, she dropped out, too. But I kept coming back. I was a marshal for 21 years, my participation only ended when COVID-19 forced the parade off the streets.

This year, the parade returns in person on November 20, but I am now retired and living in a small village outside the city.

Haliburton, I was delighted to discover, also runs its own Santa Claus parade. While the Toronto parade runs for 5.6 kilometres, Haliburton’s is just 2 blocks long. Toronto’s parade is run with military precision. Haliburton’s – not so much. Here, anyone can decorate up their pickup truck and join the parade. And some floats have been ingenious, including a school bus with an inflatable snowman in each window. In Haliburton, handfuls of candy are also tossed to eager kids and adults who refuse to grow up. Sadly, though, there are no upside-down clowns.

Last December, my local parade put out the word that they were looking for volunteer Marshalls. I dusted off my Toronto vest and signed up. But the job was significantly different: I was assigned traffic duty in the wild parade staging area where the procession was decided by a first-come-first-served method. But just as in the big city, the costumes (which participants must make themselves) revealed the full range of human imagination. My favourite was a woman dressed as a Canada Post mailbox.

I wasn’t sure if she was collecting letters to Santa.

Irv Handler lives in Haliburton, Ont.