Cheryl Toska missed last year’s Mayor’s Christmas Parade in Baltimore. Her scleroderma autoimmune disease relegated her to a ventilator in the intensive care unit at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and prevented her even from talking.
To cheer her up, her friend Kris Butcher texted the 52-year-old Phoenix woman photos of the Grinch and the marching bands.
“I wrote on a white board, ‘I will be there next year,’” Toska said.
On Sunday, as the friends stood together in the sunlight on The Avenue in Hampden to take in the parade, Toska admitted she’d never fully convinced herself of that. She is on dialysis, and family members are being tested to see whether any of them can donate a kidney.
“I never thought I’d be here at all,” she said. “Just being here, alive and present every day is special. Every minute is special.”
A record crowd estimated at 15,000 flocked to the city’s largest holiday parade on Sunday for a chance to see Santa Claus on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh and other elected officials; marching bands, dancers and giant cartoon balloons.
A sunny and unseasonably warm Dec. 3 that reached nearly 60 degrees made for a better-attended parade, chairman Tom Kerr said. The parade begins each year at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in North Baltimore and marches south on Falls Road, east on West 36th Street, and north on Chestnut Avenue to 37th Street in Hampden.
“It was one of the best we’ve ever had,” Kerr said. “It’s just a great day. It seemed like everybody showed up.”
He jokingly attributed the nice weather, in part, to the selection of veteran WJZ-TV weatherman Bob Turk as the parade's grand marshal. Turk and other local television personalities rode in convertibles and waved to the crowd.
Two acts that had been scheduled for the parade did not attend, Kerr said. The marching band of Francis Scott Key High School in Union Bridge canceled when Carroll County Public Schools banned all school trips to Baltimore last week, citing “escalating violence” in the city. Another marching band from Virginia did not attend because their bus broke down, he said.
Carroll County did have at least one group in attendance.
Stephanie Rieger, 43, of Taneytown attended with about a half-dozen of her family and friends — some of whom wore tinsel Christmas hats they’d brought for the occasion. Maddie Rieger, 13, Abby Rieger, 10, Ashley Atkinson, 8, and April Atkinson, 9, watched the parade while sitting in a row on the curb in front of her.
“We’re not in the parade, but we’re a part of the parade,” Stephanie Rieger said, gesturing to the hats.
Zoe Taylor and Violet Schanbacher, both 8, wore big smiles below Christmas headbands as they prepared to pack their pockets with candy thrown from floats.
“My favorite part is when little girls throw candy,” Violet said.
A red Christmas ornament tumbled from her headband and bounced on the sidewalk. She rattled off a quick list of her favorites: “lollipops, Starburst, Jolly Ranchers, Hershey’s Kisses ...”
“I just want a red lollipop,” Zoe interjected.
Sarah Taylor, Zoe’s mother, called the parade “the unofficial start to the Christmas season.”
“It’s very nostalgic,” the Hampden woman said. “It feels like the ’70s to me. I love it.”
Marixa George of Catonsville brought her 6-year-old son, Aiden, and her 77-year-old mother, Yvonne, who was visiting from Trinidad and Tobago. Seated in the shade on the south side of the street, Aiden and Yvonne George both stayed warm under blankets.
“It’s more crowded on the sun side,” Marixa George noted.
For homes and businesses along the route, the parade offers the perfect occasion for a party.
Deborah Patterson, who lives in her art studio, 834 Hampden, invited friends over for malt cider and bourbon and homemade cheese biscuits. Of the dozens of floats, bands and other groups riding and marching down the street, the Boumi Shriners and steppers, in particular, are Patterson’s favorite.
The parade is “small-town, old-fashioned, Main Street,” she said.
“There’s nothing like this,” she said. “Where [else] do you see something like this?”
Hampden Junque was closed for business on Sunday. But owner Michal Makarovich and his friends milled in and out of the antique store on The Avenue, sipping bourbon and cheering for the various acts.
For the day, the storefront is transformed into a “sky box,” as Makarovich calls it — “just a pretentious way to say we can come in and get warm, have alcohol and some nibbles.”
“It’s the best parade in the city,” he said. “I know the Macy’s [Thanksgiving Day] Parade [in New York] is bigger, but the local pride — it’s like the John Waters quote about Baltimore: ‘It’s all these weird people having no idea how weird they are.’”
Allison Perrelli celebrated her first anniversary as owner of Luigi’s Italian Deli the day before the parade. She brought garlic knots outside to her father, Vin, who hawked them to passersby with fervor.
“This is to die for,” he hollered, standing on a chair for added effect as he sprinkled garlic over the doughy rolls. “I want you to tell all your friends.”
Allison Perrelli said she liked the environment among the local businesses on The Avenue, which she described as collaborative, rather than competitive.
“It’s what Hampden is all about,” she said. “Everyone working together to keep the neighborhood like this.”
Chuck Collins, a bartender at the Ottobar, wore a Santa Claus costume and ran into the street with a group of his friends to take a quick picture with an Elvis Presley impersonator, who gladly stopped to oblige.