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Judi Adamson, Pat Presley, Rhonda Watson and Noreen Moore Remember Santa Day

November 23, 2022

A Visit with Santa Claus

Fenelon Falls hosted its first Santa Claus Parade on December 18, 1937. Hundreds of people turned out to watch one of “the most entertaining events ever held here. The kiddies turned out en-mass—more than three hundred and fifty of them and the grown ups forgot their duties and enjoyed themselves as much as the young folk. Streamers of flags were strung across the street and the gay colours of the children’s attire against the background of snow made a pretty picture. … by the time the fire siren announced the approach of the parade everyone was on tiptoe with expectancy.  Santa has chosen a yolk of oxen to drive his sleigh and came at the last of the parade.”  The parade featured Mrs. Claus, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Dickens and the Duke of Wellington, while “the antics of a camel were one of the funniest features of the parade, and members of the Salvation Army were obliged to stop playing and laugh when it knelt down as it passed through their ranks.” At this First Santa Claus Parade, Santa gave children candy and oranges.

The inaugural event was such a resounding success that its organizers set about turning it into an annual celebration. While the first parade featured floats from four businesses (W.T. Robson, H.H. Moore, Andrew McFarland and Brandon and Gamble’s Hardware), it did not take long for many more members of the community to take an interest in entering the parade. By the 1950s, a great variety of businesses and community organizations were represented in the Santa Claus Parade, and many took the time to create elaborate entries. In 1951, Santa Claus arrived standing on the top of a cube van, sponsored by Robsons, and one float featured a costumed Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, perched on the roof of a car—imagine the safety concerns about that one today! Another float carried the five little pigs. A few years later, Coburn’s Drug Store exhibited the old woman who lived in a shoe.

By the 1960s, a volunteer committee at the Chamber of Commerce was organizing the Santa Claus Parade. For many years, George Palmer Sr. served as parade marshal, while Garnet Graham, Reg Wood, Ron Watson, Martha Bigley, Mike Dowdle and Fred Raby were notable volunteers. The parade began at the Sundial Motel, crossed the bridge and turned down Bond Street to the Arena (now Farmer’s Market). Santa Claus and his reindeer were transported by Ontario Hydro. For many visitors, the marching bands were a primary attraction, headlined by the Kawartha Kavaliers, who often immediately preceded Santa Claus. The bands were typically local, like the Lindsay Kinsmen Band, Sutton Scarletaires, Bobcaygeon Legionnaires, Lakefield Scottish Pipers, McIntyre Pipes and Drums, and of course the Fenelon Falls’ own Salvation Army and High School Bands.

Few attendees forgot the Rotary Club’s Hobo Simfunny Band, which consisted of the members dressed in drag. Though it really wasn’t about the music, it created many laughs as the big, buxom Rotarians strutted their stuff. Pharmacist Ken McArthur would sport a flowing wig as he played “the vivacious cutie (?) Kenaseena whose high kicking and doubtful figure was out of this world—yes, all the way out.” Everyone in the Simfunny Band had a special name.

By the 1970s Bev Brown (brother of Jim Brown who for many years was a parade marshal) was Santa Claus. In those days, this celebrity was casually called “the jolly fat man.” Many of the home decorated floats sang Christmas Carols, instead of the recorded music that is commonplace today. Pat remembers singing with the Wrinkle City choir, while her father Mervyn Moore, entered a float on behalf of the Fenelon Falls Agricultural Society with reindeer going around on a ring, prancing up and down as they moved. When Judi and her husband Bob Adamson entered their first float for J n B’s Variety, they shared it with Peter’s Hairstyling, because they couldn’t afford to do a float on their own—it was quite an undertaking to put one together. One memorable entry was George Miller Jr. in the bathtub, with the water running, and all kinds of bubbles.

Watson’s Village Shop often had one of the most memorable entries. Ron Watson was a parade organizer, while his wife Elsie was a seamstress and spent countless hours making beautiful costumes. Most participants did not have lights and generators, and so relied on their artistic talents to make something wonderful. One year, Elsie made angel wings out of coat hangers, with gauze sewed on them. Another year they became carollers. Unfortunately, once the red flannelette used in the costumes got wet and ran the participants’ skin turned pink, and so did all the white gloves that Elsie had so carefully made. Rhonda, as the daughter of such active volunteers, was of course expected to help. She hand painted and lettered the wooden banner for the wagon.

Many of the floats were on farm wagons towed by tractors. Without powered speakers and amplifiers, the participants joined together to sing Christmas carols, and it was no easy feat to project over the hum of the tractors. In those days, the parking was not closed off on the main street, and many families stayed in the shelter for their vehicles to watch the parade. It certainly was a different atmosphere than what we are used to today. But, everyone worked so very hard to make it special. One year, Elsie transformed the wagon into a covered wagon.

Santa’s reindeer float was shared between Lindsay, Bobcaygeon and Fenelon Falls. One year, Ron Watson needed a place to store it the night before the parade, and Mrs. Nelson offered the use of her property at Aunt Molly’s (Fenelon Fish and Grill). On his way out there, the police pulled him over, and issued Ron a ticket for a missing flag on Santa’s float. When he got home, Ron remarked, “There’s no spirit of Christmas in that guy.”

“Christ was a big part of Christmas back then,” Rhonda recalls. Many of the churches put a float in the parade, often featuring nativity scenes. The brownies and girl guides often participated, and Elsie helped to make their costumes too. Many of the floats represented world events. For instance, in 1967, Fenelon Falls Public School marked the centennial by having its kids dress up in typical attire of each of the ten preceding decades, while the High School dreamed up a Lester B. Pearson computer, which carefully tracked how pure straw could be transformed into pure straw. Two years later, the Kawartha Lakes School, Lindsay, commemorated the Moon Landing with a Space Float.

The parade took place mid afternoon, and after it was finished, Santa would make his way down to the four corners, and give out bags of candy in front of the Post Office/CIBC. Rotary Club volunteers worked hard to put the 1500 candy bags together. There were often other events later in the day, like a skate-a-thon or teen dance at the arena. Many people would stay and shop after the parade—from beginning to end, it was one of the busiest days for local shop keepers. As a youngster, Rhonda was hard at work parcelling up all the Christmas purchases. Saturday had long been the day when farmers would spend the evening in town socializing and shopping. By the time it was all over, “Mom and Dad would come home pooped.”

In the 1980s, Bert’s Appliances often entered a memorable float, while the Rotary Club started bringing exchange students from all over Rotary District 701 to march in the parade. Each would carry their own country’s flag and over the years, and participants came from all corners of the world. Vince Jones served as parade marshal for many years.

Through the 1990s, the Santa Claus parade remained a really exciting day for kids, with a few activities around town. Visitors were given bags of candy and had the chance to visit Santa Claus. The annual parade was always well attended, and year after year, the community came up with many creative entries. Up to that point, the parade had taken place during the daytime. For 1999, a group of innovative volunteers including Bob Pennock, Barb Fletcher, Dave Zebec, Scott Woolfrey, Pat Thurston, Faye McGee, Frank Kinsinger, Carl Quaranto, Heidi Neal, Ken & Naomie LeMesurier John & Ada Thompson, Isabel & Howard Mitchell, Alice Simpson, Glenn Woolfrey, Helen McIlhargey and Shelley Given decided is was time to try something new—a night time parade, with all the beautiful colours of Christmas lights. By then, generators and artificial lights were common, luxuries that practically no one would have had six generations earlier.

With the change to a night time parade, the annual event transformed into Santa Day. Its committee was blessed to include many enthusiastic volunteers such as Ross Hawe, Paul Presley and Noreen Moore who put countless hours into transforming the annual parade into an all-day event, that had so much to offer everyone who attended, not just the kids. Bob Pennock and Frank Kinsinger “never stopped thinking.” They were always coming up with ways to make Santa Day so much more than it had been before.

Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s, the event focused on a daytime parade, where most of the floats were homemade, put together voluntarily by the businesses and organizations who entered them, Santa Day entailed far more expenses than in previous years. Bob, Frank and Peter Oliver together collected all of the money to pay for the event, as just about every business in town chipped in. Peter secured a sponsorship from Hasbro, his daughter’s employer.

Frank “was the leader and he never said no to anything. He could see how to make the ideas come to fruition and went along with many schemes that I really wondered about,” Judi recalls. Many of the creative concepts came from Bob Pennock, who was the dreamer, “he always had new ideas,” and Barb Fletcher was the optimist, she was always interested and wanting to try something new. Whatever Bob came up with, she would of course say, “Oh, Bob, that’s a good idea!” Peter brought a lot of computer skill, at a time when the internet was a new, but ever more important part of the event.

Over the years, the committee came up with a lot of new ideas from a merry-go-round (which Sobeys hosted) to Bouncy Castles, dog sleds rides, wagon rides, Zoo to You, a petting zoo, face painting, J’s Magic, a stilt walker, a living statue, the Hand Bell players from North York, ice sculptures, a wood carver and more. After a few years the event had become so large, that it took place on both sides of the bridge, then two Santa Clauses were needed, which was explained as “even Santa Claus needs helpers.” Then for the 10th anniversary of the night time parade, the committee introduced fireworks. But once they had lit up the night sky once, visitors came to expect it every year.  

With all the new ideas that have come over the years, some things never changed. Every year since the night time parade originated, Wayne Lott has been Santa Claus. Helen McIlhargey is the longest-serving committee member, dating back to the daytime parade. Noreen Moore has been doing cookie decorating since the 1990s. When she started out in the building that is now the Grove Theatre Box Office, they decorated 75 cookies. For the 20th anniversary in 2019 it had grown to 2200 with 20 girls helping with the activities at Slices and Scoops. By then, the annual gingerbread decorating competition was well established, with over 30 entries.

Always the last Saturday in November, the organizers never know what to expect from the weather. One year it was so warm that people were going around in shorts and sandals. In 2019 there was quite the storm shortening what had been planned as the first ever Santa Day weekend. One year there was freezing rain during the parade, and many entries had a very difficult time getting up the hill at the north end of Colborne Street. That evening, the parade marshal coordinating that end of the parade called in to say, “don’t send any more floats because they are all sliding sideways down Princes Street,” Pat remembers. The parade had to be rerouted down Queen Street.

“It is amazing to walk down Colborne Street and see all the people lining up on both sides of the street,” Pat explains. “It just blows your mind that Fenelon Falls can host an event that attracts that many people. Counting between two hydro poles there are 150 people, lined up shoulder to shoulder, 4 or 5 rows deep.” In 2019, approximately 10,000 visitors attended, making it the largest Santa Claus parade in the Kawarthas. Few small towns in Ontario can match Fenelon Falls’ annual Christmas celebration.

It is an event that means so much to the community and all the families who travel to attend it. One mother driving from Cobourg explained how important it was to have such a wonderful free event, with so many activities she otherwise could not afford. For some families, the Santa Day weekend, is when they get together to celebrate Christmas. It’s all made possible by about 200 volunteers. Trentside Baptist Church cleans up the street each year after the parade. “We have some very generous people in this community who help it happen,” Judi observes. Through Fenelon Falls’ Santa Day, this holiday spirit reaches practically everyone in town. Every year it is one of those special days that practically the whole community and thousands of visitors come together to create holiday memories that will last a lifetime.

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