Floats. Marching bands. Baton twirlers and color guards. Fire trucks. Antique cars. Shiny new convertibles. And of course, a visit from jolly old St. Nick. Gastonia’s annual Christmas Parade officially kicks off the holiday season with family fun and a flood of nostalgia.
Gastonia’s Christmas Parade started at least 65 years ago, maybe even earlier. It was so long ago that early records are hard to find.
The Gaston County Jaycees began sponsoring the parade in the 1950s. The national organization had developed a guide to help local chapters across the country host parades. Andrea Grenier of the Gaston County Jaycees says that’s because the organization has “the manpower and the love of giving back to our communities.”
Photos from the 1950s and ‘60s show the parade was originally held on Main Avenue. At some point, it was moved to Franklin Boulevard. Seven years ago, the parade went back to Main Avenue. Gaston County Jaycees President Chris Ashley says the Franklin route was too long and too impersonal, with the event “losing that parade feeling.”
He says he will always remember the 2014 return to Main Avenue. “We all stood in amazement at the crowd along the route,” Ashley says. “I believe it brought new life to the parade, as those walking and performing could feel it in the air.”
The parade has rarely been canceled, other than a few years back because of icy rain and last year because of COVID-19. Grenier says she has happy memories of attending the Gastonia Christmas Parade as a child. And Ashley says the parade seems to have a special appeal for kids. “I believe the Christmas Parade is a great tradition for the residents of Gastonia,” he says. “It is especially important for the children as they get to see Santa visit Gastonia before Christmas.”
Starting in the 1990s, a festive event called Holidays in the City was added on the day after the parade. The Monday night event included hay rides, handbell choirs, choral and dance performances, and community caroling. It was sponsored by the Uptown Business & Professional Association and was a fundraiser for various local charities.
In 2007, Keep Gastonia Beautiful began hosting a tree-lighting ceremony on the Monday before Thanksgiving. It featured local musicians, free hot chocolate, and treat bags for the kids. The separate events continued until 2016, when the City Council decided to combine the marketplace, parade and tree lighting into one event. It’s now called Christmas in the City.
“It ended up being in everyone’s best interest to combine the events,” says Juliann Lehman of Keep Gastonia Beautiful. “Having all of the activities on the same day creates a bigger audience.”
Gastonia held parades in the past to celebrate the end of major wars and to honor its textile industry. But the Christmas Parade is the only one to keep marching on through six decades. Ashley, of the Jaycees, credits the partnership and hard work of all involved.
“The parade could not go on without the support that the City gives us,” Ashley says. “We thank all departments that have a hand in getting things done. From the setup, police security, the lights, trash pickup, street cleaning. It takes the entire Jaycees and the City for the parade to happen.”
After the 2020 COVID cancellation, many Gastonia residents say they are thrilled that the parade and tree lighting will be held again this year. “We’ve had a lot of interest,” says City Event Planner Christine Ingle. “People really missed the parade last year.”
Continuing the tradition, this year’s parade and marketplace will begin at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 5 in downtown Gastonia. The tree lighting at the Rotary Pavilion will be held immediately after the parade. The Christmas Marketplace and all other activities will end at 7 p.m.