Ready or not, Christmas is hitting the streets of downtown Raleigh November 23. This year is the Raleigh Christmas Parade’s 75th anniversary, and it happens to be the biggest holiday parade between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. Organizer Jennifer Martin, the executive director of the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association, says that this much history leads to lots of traditions, including families and performers that come back again and again.
Martin, who took over organizing the parade about ten years ago, loves the community’s response to the parade. “I feel very fortunate and blessed to work for this event,” she says. “We have so many people who come out to celebrate.” This year, Martin says there will even be a few surprise special guests to celebrate the anniversary. Organizers expect over 60,000 people to attend the parade in person plus another 250,000 to watch it live on television. And yes, it will be shown again on Christmas Day.
The Raleigh Christmas Parade began as a way for business owners from the Greater Raleigh Merchants Bureau to give back to the community. It has always been the weekend before Thanksgiving, Martin says, because the original organizers knew their lives would be too hectic to move it any closer to the actual holiday. Mark Harris has been participating in the parade for decades, first as a child attending with his dad, and today as one of the official float builders for the parade. Harris said he loves the joy the parade brings to people, especially children, and that it takes months of work to get everything together. “The event itself is a very positive event, but there are a lot of people behind the scenes,” Harris says.
Mark Weldon, a board member of the Greater Raleigh Merchants Bureau, started as a parade volunteer nearly ten years ago. Weldon said he’s enjoyed seeing the parade become more polished over time, and he loves the way Martin makes an effort to invite someone special to the event every year. “The looks on everyone’s faces,” he says. “I really can’t put it into words. You really have to be there.” Martin says that some attendees start setting up their chairs along the route as early as 4 a.m., even though the parade doesn’t officially start until 9:40. “It’s just where their family has always come,” Martin says. “It’s a little bit of an elating feeling seeing people out there, not because they have to be, but because they want to be. I love seeing how excited people are.” —Shelbi Polk