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Aiken Christmas Traditions

The 13th Annual Hoofbeats and Christmas Carols Parade

Article by Gayle Bryan

Photography by AP Gouge Photography

Originally published in Aiken City Lifestyle

There is no denying that Aiken is a horse town. There are world-class equestrian events to be enjoyed year-round, but possibly none more eagerly anticipated than the Annual Hoofbeats & Christmas Carols Parade. Every December, hundreds of horses, riders, carriage drivers, and dog walkers bring the magic of Christmas to downtown Aiken. 

The parade was born out of a former riding group known as The Mock Hunt. Samantha Spitler, developer of Hatchaway Bridge Farms, was inspired by realtor, Billy Bennett, to create a way to show off the property by getting riders out on trails without the formality of a traditional fox hunt. The Mock Hunt soon became a Wednesday tradition with riders of all disciplines exploring fabulous Aiken trails, followed by a potluck feast. As Christmas neared, Sam decided caroling on horseback was in order and the parade was born. “When we first started, we could never get anybody to come out and see us so we could carol to them. We were thrilled when somebody’s dogs came running out so we could sing to them!” 

The next year, Mock Hunt rider, Trish Leslie, approached Sam with the idea of moving the parade downtown to spread holiday cheer on horseback through the streets of Aiken. They organized with the Aiken Department of Public Safety and the parade began to grow. The first couple of years, a Wednesday afternoon parade often had more horses than spectators. After some trial and error with dates and time of day, they landed at midday on a December Saturday, and the crowds and participation have grown each year. For over a decade, Sam, Trish and fellow rider, Linda Murphy, have organized the Hoofbeats & Christmas Carols Parade. It is one of the most looked forward to holiday events in Aiken, not only for locals, but for participants and spectators coming from up and down the East Coast. The 2021 Parade had over 300 horses and 100 dogs. As you can see from the photos, the participants go all out in outfitting themselves, the horses, and dogs in Christmas finery. 

The first year downtown brought some challenges–manure! Sam recounts her husband, Jerry Spitler, being mortified by the horses doing their business on downtown sidewalks. From that mortification, Jerry and Dan Murphy put their heads together, and PEPSA (Professional Elf Pooper Scoopers of America) was born!  PEPSA is made up of the 70-plus-year-old husbands of some of the riders. They have embraced the poop challenge with gusto, dressing as elves, decorating their shovels and performing with kazoos during the parade. And not just anyone is admitted to the “PEPSA Union”. There are standards!

The quality of the caroling has improved since the early years of singing to the dogs. Sam recruited lifelong friend Kendall Standish, a New York Cabaret singer, to help elevate the music. This year, the organizers have added multiple choral groups headed up by Keely Rhodes. They have also partnered with Beasley Broadcasting’s new Aiken station, Sunny 102.7, to broadcast two hours of uninterrupted Christmas carols during the parade. They will have speakers along the parade route, and are asking downtown merchants to tune in as well to fill downtown with the music of Christmas.

The current parade committee, consisting of Sam, Trish, Arlene Swindle and Karen Tappenden, work hard throughout the year to make the parade a success. This year, they will partner with Equine Rescue of Aiken and the SPCA. These organizations will provide additional structure for this growing endeavor, and the organizers are thrilled to highlight the great work done by both charities.

The 13th Annual Hoofbeats & Christmas Carols Parade saddles up December 17th at 2 pm. It will begin its two-and-a-half mile journey at the intersection of Barnwell and Greenville, passing by Trinity on Laurens Senior Living, progressing through downtown Aiken, looping around to The Willcox, and circling back through downtown. Further details and the full parade route are available on the 2022 Hoofbeats & Christmas Carols Facebook page.