Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas in Dixie

Picture Courtesy of David Joyce
           Although versions of the Christmas in Dixie parade were happening as far back as the 1920s, the parade became an institution in northern Palm Beach County during its run from 1954 until the early 1990s. Spectators had to get to the parade route an hour before it started to claim space on the curb.
          My family settled in for the long wait along the parade route reeking of sunscreen because in Florida, despite the calendar saying December, it’s often hot and sunny.  When cars trickled to a stop, my brother would dash into the four-lane street along with twenty other little boys looking for the start of the parade.
When we could hear faint music, everyone would stand up and elbowing each other, crane our necks around and over each other in order to see the very beginning of the parade. The American flag appeared down the street first in the hands of the color guard, the local R.O.T.C. or the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Everyone lining the parade route would stand quietly, hand over heart in respect. The dad hand would be attempting to reach and smack anyone under age ten who wouldn’t stand still or dared to speak.
          The first modern Christmas in Dixie parade was organized in 1954 in Riviera Beach by Jerry Kelly. By 1969, the Palm Beach Post was calling the Christmas in Dixie Parade the “Biggest Florida parade outside of the Orange Bowl spectacle.” That year, the Christmas in Dixie parade included “clowns, twirlers, motorcycles, floats, fire engines, horses, dogs, six bands and a lion.” Also on board was the “Miami Mummer’s Band.” It may not have been televised like the Orange Bowl which went out over the airwaves to TV sets all over the country live from the streets of Miami, but we sat in awe on the curbs and danced in excitement anyway.
          We did our part as spectators, waving at the kids on the floats and anyone in the parade who glanced our way. We danced when the marching bands came by and we ooed and ah’d where expected. We bought souvenirs from the vendors who walked up and down the street selling cotton candy and other things we tried to convince our parents were necessary to life.
          The Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts marched in uniform, waving at the crowd. Local gymnastics schools had participants flipping down the street. Hordes of baton twirlers twirled as they marched. The local fire departments had their oldest trucks decorated and in the parade. Local celebrities and a Grand Marshall sat with sashes and flowers in the backs of convertibles. All the high school bands performed. They would march by with sweat beading on their faces, proudly playing “Jingle Bells” or their school fight song.
          The luckiest participants were those that rode on floats. Church groups would spend weeks building elaborate nativities and holiday displays on flat bed trailers covered with chicken wire. The children of the church would ride clinging on for dear life while singing Christmas carols at the top of their lungs in order to be heard. For some unknown reason, they were usually put right in front or behind one of the high school bands.
There was a Miss Christmas in Dixie and she and her court had a float all to themselves. The queen and her court were required to wave regally when they weren’t tossing candy to the kids along the route. By the time they reached the end, arms were aching and Christmas cheer was in short supply.
          The very last entry in the parade was always Santa Clause. When kids saw his flat bed trailer decked out with a huge gold throne and eight tiny reindeer mysteriously hovering in the air coming down the street, sheer ecstasy and pandemonium would erupt. It meant that it was finally, officially, Christmas season. We only had a few more weeks to keep trying to be good.
Behind Santa’s float, the real world came back and people who had finished watching the parade at the beginning had lined up in their cars and patiently followed Santa’s float across town. More than one kid riding in the back of their parent’s station wagon would wave at the spectators like they were a big shot in the parade themselves.
          In the early 1990s the much loved Christmas in Dixie parade met its sad end when, in a fit of jealousy over a boy, a teenage girl near the end of the parade route threw a bottle at her rival who was marching in the parade. During the riot that followed, it was estimated that 750 to 1,000 people were arrested. That, along with rising costs, led to the demise of the best small-town spectacle I can remember.


  1. aww thats too bad, i guess a lot of the smaller towns have been cutting back over the years. Havent seen you around the Blooming Late group lately,should post your blog link at least and catch us up!

  2. Hi Samantha: I've been hopping on She Writes from time to time but have just been swamped. Seems once good things started happening, they overwhelmed me! I really can't complain :) I'll try to write more on the site. It's a great one and a terrific resource.