JCI’s storied history with the annual Winnipeg Santa Claus Parade

By Natasha Fisher

Nov.15 will mark the 105th anniversary of the Santa Claus parade here in Winnipeg. The Winnipeg Santa Claus Parade has a wonderful, community-based history throughout its 105 years and for the last 40 years, it has been the key community event for JCI Winnipeg.
The Santa Claus Parade started with the Eaton’s department store which hosted the first parade back in 1909, and continued to do so until 1965. Due to increasing costs, Eaton’s could no longer organize the parade.
However, the parade still continued thanks to a gentleman by the name of Captain George Smith of the East Kildonan fire department, who on behalf of the Winnipeg Firefighters Club, bought the parade from Eaton’s for $1.50.
For close to ten years, the Winnipeg Firefighters worked very closely with volunteers from schools to carry on the parade tradition, and in 1975, the Winnipeg Jaycees, now JCI Winnipeg, was asked to continue the community tradition.
JCI Winnipeg took over the stewardship of the Winnipeg Santa Claus Parade exclusively until 2004. Today, the Winnipeg Santa Claus Parade is presented by Manitoba Hydro and guided by the Winnipeg Parade Committee.
JCI Winnipeg continues to have a very active role in the Santa Claus Parade including the continued stewardship of the Santa Claus float.

The JCI Winnipeg team with the Santa Claus float.
The JCI Winnipeg team with the Santa Claus float.

Yes – the float that carries the man himself, Saint Nick, along the streets of Winnipeg. It is quite special to be responsible for Santa’s ride – however, if I was to be honest, for 364 days of the year, the float can be quite a pain.
First, the float is rather large so finding storage for it is quite a challenge. For a while it was stored outside, which in turn resulted in significant weather damage, and it became the home for a stray cat or two. We eventually lucked out with indoor storage, however the rent was too high to keep up for a non-profit, membership-based organization. Currently, Santa’s sleigh and reindeer have a temporary home in an empty shed on our chapter president’s family farm.
Second, due to the weather damage and the age of the float (it is built with old Eaton’s billboards), repairs need to be made on a yearly basis. Last year, JCI Winnipeg teamed up with the very talented and dedicated crew from the Manitoba Institute of Trades and Technology who worked on the float prior to the parade. Santa himself said it was the best the float has been in years. I am sure the staff and students found a few extra presents under the tree.
Despite the storage and repair pains of the float, it is what happens throughout the day of the parade that makes it all worth it. For that one day, all the stress just melts away, and you have a permanent smile on your face. It is a day I look forward to every year and it is an opportunity for every JCI member to be involved in this timeless Winnipeg tradition.
Hours before the parade even starts, JCI Winnipeg hosts Santa’s Workshop in Riddell Hall in the University of Winnipeg for many inner-city youth. Throughout the day, the children play video games, make crafts, write letters to Santa, eat lunch, and have an opportunity to get a free picture with Santa. This is not something that every child can afford to experience, but on the day of the Winnipeg Santa Claus Parade, JCI Winnipeg, a team of dedicated volunteers, and generous sponsors make it possible.
Last year was the first year I volunteered to serve sandwiches, and my eyes were opened to the number of families that do not have enough to eat. It was not unusual to have a few families take a number of extra sandwiches and pack them up so they had meals for the next week.
Following Santa’s Workshop, JCI Winnipeg, along with other organizations, participate in the block parties along Portage Avenue. At our Host-a-Block, JCI Winnipeg members play street hockey with the children and provide hot chocolate.
Finally, the parade starts and JCI members escort Santa and his float along the parade. You have to experience it yourself to understand what it is like to be one of Santa’s peeps.
Children along the parade route are chanting “Santa! Santa! Santa!” They wave their arms, high-fiving you as you walk by while others are just shaking from pure excitement from seeing the one-and-only.
Soon, your face is hurting from smiling and your arms are sore from waving so much, but the joy, excitement and adrenaline you get back from the community lined up along Portage Avenue is something one cannot put into words.
You are riding that high all day and night, and once the parade is over and Santa’s sleigh is tucked away for another year, you start to experience what I call the “post-parade blues,” and already you are looking forward to the next year.
For JCI members, the day of the Winnipeg Santa Claus Parade is a full day of giving back to the community, but in reality, what you get back from participating in something that brings so much joy to others is immeasurable – and truly priceless.

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