If you think that it’s only recently that stores kicked off the Christmas shopping season before Thanksgiving, consider this: The Raleigh Christmas Parade has always been held the Saturday before turkey day.
The Greater Raleigh Merchants Association chose the date for the first parade in 1939 to get shoppers into the holiday spirit, and it hasn’t deviated since then.
“They wanted to thank customers for the year they had already given them and then prepare them for the holiday season,” said parade director Jennifer Martin.
This year’s parade begins at 9:40 a.m. Saturday and will take about 2.5 hours to finish the 1.5-mile route along Hillsborough and Fayetteville streets. It will be televised from 10 a.m. to noon on WRAL-TV and UNC-TV, and will be rebroadcast on Christmas morning.
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About 65,000 people lined the streets to watch last year, Martin said. The biggest crowd in recent memory was more than 80,000 in 2011, when “American Idol” winner and Garner native Scotty McCreery was grand marshal and temperatures reached the low 60s.
This year’s grand marshal will be Ira David Wood III, who founded Raleigh’s Theater in the Park 40 years ago. Other highlights: Santa Claus, 23 marching bands, including the 300-member N.C. State University band, and the return of giant helium balloons, which were missing last year because of a national helium shortage. The biggest balloon will be a 45-foot Elvis Presley, sponsored by Red Hat Amphitheater.
Also new this year is a color-coded parking scheme to help people find where they parked afterward. Each city-owned parking deck will be assigned its own unique color, with large colored signs at each entrance. City officials say the system was used during the bluegrass festival and helped reduce the number of people who reported having trouble finding their cars.
This is the parade’s 70th anniversary, even though the first one was held in 1939. The parade was put on hiatus during the war years before resuming in 1945, Martin said.
The Raleigh parade claims to be the largest between Washington and Atlanta.