Retro Baltimore

Baltimore’s Christmas parade, a tradition as resilient as the holidays

Six years without a Christmas parade? That was the sorry state of affairs Baltimore was faced with in 1973. But thanks to the merchants and residents of Hampden, that sad losing streak would never reach seven.

From 1936 to 1966, Baltimore had charmed its residents with a big-time holiday parade on Thanksgiving, complete with marching bands, floats, clowns and giant inflatable balloons. Sponsored by the Hochschild, Kohn department store, it was known as the Toytown Parade; crowds as large as 250,000 lined its Howard Street route. But by the time of the last parade, the number of spectators had fallen to “nearly 100,000,” according to a story in the Nov. 25, 1966, Sun. Still, it wasn’t a lack of interest that led to the parade’s cancellation the following year, but rather aging rubber. The Toytown Parade, The Sun reported, was canceled due to “deteriorating balloons.”


Six parade-less years followed. But by mid-1973, word was spreading that the celebration would be returning, albeit moved a good bit north. “Any grass growing in Hampden is not under the feet of John T. (Tommy) Kerr and his associates in the Hampden Businessmen’s Association,” columnist Lou Panos wrote in the July 9 Evening Sun. “They’re already working on preparations for a two-hour Thanksgiving Day parade to replace the one dropped by downtown merchants after all those years...”

On Nov. 24, 1973, two days after Thanksgiving, the first of what even then was known as the Mayor’s Christmas Parade marched its way to and through Hampden, beginning (as it still does) at Falls Road and Cold Spring Lane. Mayor William Donald Schaefer and Orioles outfielder Paul Blair served as marshals, leading a procession that included Philadelphia’s flamboyant Mummers, plus marching bands, a calliope, a Santa Claus float and some new giant balloons, depicting Humpty Dumpty, a racing car and various animals.


The following year, with the parade moved closer to Christmas (Dec. 15), the Mummers were back, as were giant balloons of Humpty Dumpty (put back together by all the king’s men, one surmises), Gerry Giraffe and Mr. Rabbit. Schaefer was back as marshal. In a nod to the upcoming U.S. Bicentennial celebration, only two years away, “several groups of marchers dressed as Indians, frontiersmen and Revolutionary War soldiers,” the next day’s Sun reported.

“Shivering children give Santa warm welcome in Yule parade,” The Sun’s headline proclaimed, referencing the damp and 30-degree temperature.

This year’s 47th parade is set for 1 p.m. Sunday. Among the expected highlights is a giant raven balloon and (of course) the Mummers.

“It’s still going strong, the community always responds, to help out where they can,” says Tom Kerr, at 76 still putting the parade together. “I’m just so happy that the Christmas parade is still going on. It’s one of the really good things in Baltimore you can look forward to.”