Pat Smiley may be a super soccer dad who is on the verge of unveiling a veterans’ outdoor history tour along the walking path in his beloved soccer park, Liberty Field, but recently he added an element to the downtown Christmas festival that added a sparkle to the holiday spirit.
This touch, as you might guess, also started at Liberty Field.
Pat’s second annual Parade of Lights was a hodgepodge of motorcycles, fire trucks, pickups pulling traditional parade floats lighted up like nobody’s business with neon snowmen and Christmas trees, and hundreds of revelers in Santa hats, marching among the motorized parade entries or riding in a lighted trailer tossing candy to the spectators.
Crowds started to line up along South First Street, next to Pacific Station Plaza, at 5 p.m. even though the parade was not due to leave Liberty Field until 6 p.m. and would not pass them to turn into the Plaza until almost 7 p.m.
It’s an easy thing to say that everyone loves a parade, but I haven’t seen an after dark parade with so much family enthusiasm since my family attended the old Veiled Prophet parades in downtown St. Louis.
By 5 p.m. as the bonfires were being lighted and the menagerie for the petting zoo were snug in their pen, families walking in fours and fives and tens, were making their way to Pacific Station Plaza. This is where the parade would end and where Santa Claus would sit in an old antique wooden chair absconded from the McHugh-Dailey building and visit with toddlers.
As the Pacific Partnership volunteers began setting up their tables for hot chocolate, Christmas tree ornament decorating and Santa Claus, kids were everywhere. And I don’t mean just little kids, the age you’d expect to sit on Santa’s lap, but kids of all ages from those in kiddie carriers to late teens. There was a smattering of gray-haired kids there too, for that matter.
Crowds quadrupled for this event after Pat introduced a Christmas Parade of Lights last year to deliver Santa to the Plaza, but Jenny Devine, event chair, stepped up activities to accommodate the large turnout. They gathered around bonfires, visited a petting zoo, and turned cartwheels in every open space, which diminished as the evening wore on.
By the time the parade arrived, the crowd was simply unbelievable. They filled the plaza and were lined on both sides of South First from St. Louis Street to Orleans.
On the Plaza grounds 2-year-old Kenzie Berkel grasped a permanent marker and drew lines on a personalized Christmas tree ornament.
Kay LcClaire worked the crowd carrying a pair of cardboard 3-D glasses saying, “Look at the fire pit, isn’t it gorgeous? Look at this tree, at that tree. Look at the candle.”
The parade was worth the wait. A caravan of motorcycles revving their engines and flashing lights roared down the street, a signal that the parade was on the way. A real live Santa atop an antique fire truck received a rollicking cheer from the crowd. He was followed by a behemoth modern fire truck, then floats with snowmen, lighted Christmas trees, and people in Santa hats tossing candy to the crowd.
When little Kaelyn McArthur realized that Santa Claus had turned on to Orleans to enter the back of the Plaza, she broke from her family and ran toward the Plaza pavilion where Santa’s chair sat. Her parents were hard-pressed to keep up with her bright pink parka in the crowd milling around the plaza. She was first in line when Santa made his way through the throng to his chair and was treated with a big hug. When asked what she wanted for Christmas, she answered, “A jumping rope.”
The crowd, estimated between 1,000 and 1,500, was in high spirits.
“It was a Christmas festival to make Pacific proud,” one man said.
As outdoor Christmas festivals go, Christmas on the Plaza, once billed as a event for children, is growing into a venue for the ages.
Pauline Masson can be reached at email@example.com or 314-805-9800.