2023 marks the 28th anniversary of the Christmas Parade of Lights under Rotary leadership. In the beginning, and for many years, the Christmas Parade was organized and run by the Lions Club of Santa Maria. During the first years, the parade ran south on Broadway, from Fesler to Boone Streets. Surprisingly, traffic was allowed to continue on Broadway, using the western lane while the parade ran down the east side of the street!
Due to California state mandated restrictions and shutdowns surrounding the CoVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 and 2021 parades were cancelled.
Unfortunately, in 1994 the parade did not happen at all. Disappointed in the loss of this annual holiday tradition, some local Rotarians in the Santa Maria Breakfast Rotary club decided to take on the project of resurrecting the parade and making it bigger and better than ever. They were assisted with the early financial support of the Santa Maria Times. It was also decided to make this a real community event by asking participants and viewers alike to bring non-perishables to the parade to be donated for the benefit of the Salvation Army. As a result, this effort has grown into the largest canned food drive of its kind on the Central Coast. Last year, almost three tons of canned goods were collected for use which lasted into the summer months. Because of the charitable focus of the parade, the theme over the years has been “The Joy of Giving.”
One of the first things organizers did when the parade was revived in 1995 was to change the direction of the parade and start at the Santa Maria Inn and go north, finishing at the Town Center Mall. The Rotarian organizers secured permission from the city and CALTRANS to completely close Broadway during the parade. This allowed viewers to comfortably see the parade from both sides of the street, as well as provide greater safety to the participants. Parade organizers also stationed announcers, in English and Spanish, along the parade route.
Realizing this effort was much too big for one Rotary Club, the second year (1996) saw the combination of all three Santa Maria Rotary Clubs (Breakfast, Noon and South), as well as the Rotary Club of Nipomo, come together to organize and run the event. It has been a joint effort ever since with planning beginning each year in August.
In 1997, organizers purchased figurines from the proceeds of the sponsorship, and with help from the city, placed them along the median in front of the mall. In 2001, local television stations KCOY and KKFX began broadcasting the parade live. In 2003, due to the large crowds that were turning out for the event – estimated now at some 25,000 – 30,000 people, the parade was extended starting at Stowell and Broadway. For the first time in 2004, new holiday banners were hung on Broadway. These banners were the result of donations from the local Rotary Clubs and the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce.
In 2006, the Santa Maria Christmas Parade of Lights website was created. This website allows parade applications to be completed and submitted on line, as well as other information including the parade route, street closures and a photo gallery of past parades.
In 2007, a new feature of the parade experience was added with the Rotary Winter Wonderland, which was located at the Town Center Mall. The Winter Wonderland encompassed an area of approximately 40 ft. by 40 ft. and offered kids up to eight years of age a chance to frolic in a winter snowy environment while enjoying the parade. It will be a much anticipated feature of the Christmas parade again this year.
For 2010, the Christmas Parade of Lights was pleased to have a very special guest as part of the parade – Leigh Rubin. Leigh began his cartooning career in 1978 by establishing his own greeting card company, Rubes Publications. His first cartoon collection, the popular Notable Quotes musical cartoons, was published in 1981. Rubes®, which is Leigh’s syndicated carton, began in 1984 and is distributed by Creators Syndicate to more than 400 newspapers worldwide. As one of the most popular single-panel cartoons, Rubes® is a regular feature in SkyWest’s United Express and American Traveler magazines.
As we celebrate our 28th year of parade sponsorship, the four local Rotary clubs have been proud to be a part of this community celebration. We are extremely grateful for the approximately 2,500 participants, almost 250 community volunteers, local city and law enforcement personnel, as well as over 100 Rotarians who have helped make the Christmas Parade of Lights a truly signature community event for the Santa Maria Valley.