Parades of all kinds were popular in Knoxville in the late 19th and early 20th Century: circus parades, bicycle parades, Labor Day Parades, Memorial Day parades, and even the University of Tennessee held Carnival Days throughout the downtown area. By the mid-1920s, the increasing popularity of the Christmas season created a strong desire for Knoxville to host its first Christmas-themed parade.
In 1928, the first “Santa Claus Parade” featured 31 local merchant floats decorated based on nursery rhymes and fairy tales that proceeded along Gay Street at Main Street north to Fifth Avenue. Bringing up the rear, a family of Eskimos and a team of reindeer led Santa Claus in his sleigh. Two years later, the festivities were accompanied by a grand municipal Christmas tree while Santa rode in a red and green airplane – highly appropriate given the recent opening of McGhee Tyson Airport, then on Sutherland Avenue in Bearden. By 1934, clowns and masked characters with animal heads and strange faces appeared in the parade.
Christmas lights and extravaganzas were tabled throughout the economically restrained WWII years, but a desire to return to normality prevailed. Likely taking a cue from the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, Knoxville began to include helium-filled balloons in its parades. In 1946, several of these new balloons were described in the Knoxville News-Sentinel: “Pete the Pirate – with one good eye and a great big dagger right in his teeth will come all the way from the South Seas” and “Slimy the Serpent – he’s big and round and as long as a house. But you needn’t be afraid of him, ‘cause he’s the friendliest, funniest serpent in the whole world.” A two-headed tomcat named Tobo also joined the menagerie!
The 1947 parade was held on Halloween due to a problem with scheduling – organizers couldn’t book the helium balloons for any November or December dates as other cities had already beaten them to the punch. Once they arrived, the character balloons were inflated across the river on Mimosa Ave near the south end of the Gay Street bridge before being pushed into position for the start of the parade by the Courthouse. Knoxville Boy Scouts manhandled the balloons, which were towed along on trailers with nine of them wishing the spectators “M E R R Y X M A S.” Two years later, Boy Scouts also pulled along a jaunty 80-foot-long dragon that had joined the proceedings, which the Knoxville Journal described as a “long-tailed Whazzis!”
The year 1951, however, marked a sea change for the annual Parade, with more than 20 floats representing Knoxville communities, in essence creating a pageant around the telling of the famous poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas. The Chamber of Commerce arranged for that parade to be filmed in color, which was shown at various civic events around town leading up to the Christmas holiday.
In 1960, the festivities evolved yet again. Multiple Christmas trees decorated the “Promenade” – a new development behind the 400 block of Gay Street, designed to attract an ever-growing number of automobile owners to park directly behind the stores and enter them from the rear. Meanwhile, over on Market Square Mall, a Santa Claus and reindeer display, along with a 40-foot Christmas tree, took center stage. Five or six of the best-decorated floats were positioned there after the usual parade.
City officials developed a completely new idea in 1966: A Christmas pageant with stationary exhibits conveyed the now-timeless Christmas story in front of the Civic Auditorium. Interest from communities was initially lukewarm, but enthusiasm increased leading up to Christmas. Three years later, thousands braved the cold to hear the Christmas story there on a larger scale. Mary Costa, the Knoxville-born, acclaimed Metropolitan Opera singer, and the popular voice of Disney’s 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty, sang traditional songs accompanied by an 80-member choir.
By the 1970s and early 1980s, floats and marching bands were stalwarts of the Christmas parades. Heavyweight Boxing Champion Big John Tate marshaled the parade one time with City Mayor Randy Tyree riding in a horse-drawn carriage. That one also featured more than one hundred “units” including majorettes from Nashville and Chattanooga, local school bands, cheerleaders, motorcycles and even a few clowns. But Santa must have wished for a quick return to the North Pole during the heatwave of 1982 when temperatures reached up to 80 degrees.
In one form or another, Knoxville’s Christmas parades have been spreading joy and good cheer for almost 100 years now. These days, the City-sponsored “Christmas in the City” is a month-long series of events, including Christmas at Chilhowee Park, Holidays on Ice on the Market Square rink, and a Christmas-themed bike ride, Tour-De-Lights. And, of course, with its rich and fascinating history, the Knoxville Christmas Parade continues to this day – this year it’s scheduled for Friday, December 1 at 7 p.m.
This article is based on a chapter from the second edition of A Knoxville Christmas written by Jack Neely with contributions by Paul James and is available from KnoxvilleHistoryProject.org, Union Ave Books, the East Tennessee History Center, and other local bookstores and gift shops.
The Knoxville History Project is an educational nonprofit that researches, preserves, and promotes the history and culture of Knoxville, Tennessee. Donations to support KHP’s work are always welcome and appreciated. Learn more at knoxvillehistoryproject.org
The Knoxville Christmas Parade continues to this day – this year it’s scheduled for Friday, December 1 at 7 p.m.