LYNN – On Christmas Eve, as tots around the region squirm in their beds awaiting Santa’s arrival, kids of all ages will take a different approach in Lynn. They’ll be outside, socializing for hours on sidewalks and street corners, as they prepare to welcome Santa and Mrs. Claus in person.
For 26 years, the North Pole couple hasn’t disappointed. They arrive atop a tricked-out 1979 fire engine, festooned in holiday lights and cranking upbeat Christmas tunes, at the tail end of a boisterous, quirky 75-vehicle parade that channels the heart of this diverse, working-class city.
Salem has Halloween. Lynn has Christmas Eve.
“Our mission is to bring cheer and happiness to the people of the city, and try to keep the city on a good note,” said Rich Viger, parade chairman. “I want to look and see whether there are tears in their eyes or enjoyment.”
Unlike other towns’ parades that come a week or so before the holiday, Lynn’s is bigger, louder, more over-the-top, and more unifying. Children catch candy and presents, courtesy of local sponsors and donors. One family on the 23-mile route grills hot dogs every year for parade participants. Another has been known to hand out knit scarves and hats. And as parade participant Jay Walsh has learned from experience, families will even let a stranger use the bathroom.
“Who’s going to let you in their house?’ ” Walsh asked. “No one. But that night, everybody will do it.”
Floats can be as simple as a dressed-up pickup or a boat spiffed up for the occasion, but Viger has one rule: nothing dull.
No cars, for instance, with just a “Merry Christmas” banner. Bring on colored lights, spinning decorations, jumping music. Dress up the floats,
ATVs, and public works vehicles. Fire up a generator in the truck bed if necessary to power the whole show. That’s how holiday cheer gets transmitted to every corner of this city that knows its share of struggles and heartaches.
Santa’s Christmas Eve Parade began in 1986, one year after Viger and a young Jay Walsh had a look at Saugus’s parade and said: “We need to do this.” Since then it’s grown organically, not through any organization but as an informal mission of several close-knit, blue-collar families in West Lynn.
They all live a stone’s throw from the Saugus River in a cozy neighborhood: the Robbinses, Walshes, Conroys, and Melansons (Janet Melanson plays Mrs. Claus). Days before Christmas, signs of the parade start peeking out of driveways. Example: Walsh’s green lobster boat is decked out in his garage, complete with orange, lobster-shaped lights in a trap.
The spirit is contagious. Tow truck driver Sonny Maynard is a longtime Lynner, but hadn’t considered joining the parade until he moved into this neighborhood three years ago. When a neighbor gave him an old trailer, he ran with it. He scored a $25 inflatable Santa-in-a-fire-engine at Big Lots, paid a friend $20 to weld the trailer, and dropped $40 on airbrushing to liven up the inflatable’s plain backside.
“It’s hard to find blow-ups that are two-sided, [and] I thought it would be kind of cheesy going through the city with just one side” decorated, Maynard explained. “But 40 bucks to airbrush a nice design on there . . . I was good with that.”
Making the parade happen takes some $5,000 in donations, plus hours of work behind the scenes. Doug Robbins takes his towing company’s three trucks out of service at noon Christmas Eve so he and other drivers can turn them into showpieces. This year, his black wrecker will tout breast cancer awareness.
“I just figured this year I’d go with a theme,” Robbins said. “Besides, I think the pink lights will look good reflecting off the black truck.”
Parade work isn’t finished when Santa’s bag is empty. Christmas Day becomes a work day of sorts. The Walshes rise for breakfast and opening gifts, but then spend the day breaking down floats and putting things away, since everyone is back to work on the 26th.
No one complains, however. The parade has become a vessel for ordinary people to create extraordinary moments for neighbors who could use a boost. And they relish the chance to brighten spirits through a spectacle that makes all things bright, at least for a few hours.
Each year, the parade pauses in at least one location to shower seasonal good will on someone in particular need. This year, special tribute goes to Lynn’s McManus family, who in September lost a 21-year-old son, Dillon, in an accident that also seriously injured his twin brother, Riley. Santa and Mrs. Claus will step down from the truck and present a bouquet of flowers while “Silent Night” plays in the background.
This year, participants also will honor victims and survivors of the Dec. 14 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Some will display banners of remembrance or green-and-white balloons to reflect Sandy Hook’s school colors.
The parade has weathered hard times, including one year when four of the core organizers lost their fathers and weren’t in much mood to celebrate. But sharing cheer no matter the circumstances is what the parade is about. And besides, they’re still waiting for the jackpot: snow on Christmas Eve.
“We’ve never had snow; that’s the one thing we’re missing,” Walsh said. “A lot of us have plows. We’d just put the plows on and go.”