Holiday Parade Marches On

EC’s Christmas celebration makes switch to Sunday

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

GET SANTA. An estimated 8,000 people watched the inaugural Clearwater Winter Parade last year on Water Street. This year’s parade is Dec. 15.
GET SANTA. An estimated 8,000 people watched the inaugural Clearwater Winter Parade last year on Water Street. This year’s parade is Dec. 15.

Everybody loves a parade, right? There’s marching and music and fire engines and people handing out candy. A summertime staple for generations, parades have become more common during the Christmas season, providing Chippewa Vallians a way to gather together en masse outdoors to celebrate the season (weather permitting, of course). Eau Claire finally got into the act last year with the launch of the Clearwater Winter Parade, which returns this year on Sunday, Dec. 15, with the theme “Rock This City.”

“I heard a lot of (people say), ‘It’s about time Eau Claire had something like this,’ ” says Dawn Comte, who spearheaded the parade effort, which was also taken on as a project by Leadership Eau Claire volunteers. By most measures, the inaugural edition of the parade was a success. An estimated 8,000 people lined Water Street to watch the brightly lit 50-unit parade, and about 5,000 of them made their way to nearby Hobbs Ice Center for wintry activities, both outdoor and indoor, including skating, curling, snow sculptures, and s’mores.  The parade even won a “best new event” award from Downtown Eau Claire Inc.

“I would say the majority of businesses on Water Street are definitely supportive. … Our goal is not to take away business. It’s to enhance business if possible.”
–organizer Dawn Comte, on the Clearwater Winter Parade
“The first year’s always a learning opportunity, so we learned some things,” adds Comte, recreation supervisor for the city Parks, Recreation, and Forestry Department. “Our goal is to add something each year.” This year’s new additions include fireworks, which will occur over the Chippewa River during and immediately after the parade. (The best viewing will be looking south from Water Street.)

The feedback about last year’s parade was largely – but not universally – positive. Comte said some Water Street businesses were displeased that parking was restricted on the street before and during the parade, which was held on a Saturday evening. The problem was exacerbated because the temporary “no parking” signs the city erected didn’t specify the restricted hours, meaning potential parkers stayed off the street even when they could have parked. Comte acknowledges the city erred with the ambiguous signs. Nonetheless, she adds, “I would say the majority of businesses on Water Street are definitely supportive. … Our goal is not to take away business. It’s to enhance business if possible.”

In part because of the parking concerns, this year’s parade will be held on a Sunday, not a Saturday. Unfortunately, this created another conflict: The parade overlaps with a Packers game. Kickoff for that day’s Packers-Cowboys matchup is at 3:25pm, meaning the game will still be going when the parade starts. (The NFL has an option to move the game to 7pm instead, but that could draw people away from the post-parade activities, Comte notes.)

Comte is hopeful Water Street businesses get into the parade spirit this year, either by decorating their windows or by opening their doors outside of normal business hours. Many businesses are typically closed Sunday evenings, but taverns and eateries with TVs likely will be doing good business because of the Packers game.

While the Clearwater Winter Parade is still establishing itself, the parades in Chippewa Falls and Menomonie are woven deeply into their communities’ holiday fabric. In Chippewa Falls, the Bridge to Wonderland parade is in its 24th year, while Menomonie’s WinterDaze parade has been around for a decade. Both parades are operated by the cities’ Main Street groups – which exist to bring vitality to their downtowns – so businesses are part of the equation, organizers say.

Last year, more than 10,000 people crowded along Bridge Street in Chippewa Falls to bask in the glow of the Bridge to Wonderland Parade. “It’s family. It’s community. It’s a beautiful parade,” explains Teri Ouimette, Chippewa Falls Main Street executive director. “I just can’t even tell you how awesome it is. People look forward to it.”

After so many years, the parade – always held on the first Saturday in December – is a well-oiled machine: Veterans help with crowd control, Boy Scouts pick up garbage, and other volunteers – some of whom have been giving their time for two decades – keep the event running smoothly before, during, and after. Annual participants eagerly await the parade’s approach months in advance. “People start calling us – and I am not exaggerating – in July asking what the theme will be,” Ouimette says. (If you’re curious, this year it’s “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”) Such advanced planning makes for some over-the-top displays: Last year’s circus theme led to zebra-painted horses and dogs pulling sleds.

In Chippewa Falls, Bridge Street businesses get into the act. Many of them have floats in the parade, Ouimette says, while others decorate their shops or serve hot cocoa and even cotton candy. The windows of many businesses are filled with entries to a children’s coloring contest. Another key to the parade’s success: The number of entries are limited (typically there are 60 to 65) and they’re kept moving at a fast clip (last year’s parade clocked in at 48 minutes) so paradegoers don’t have to stand in the cold for too long.

While it hasn’t been around as long as its Chippewa Falls counterpart, Menomonie’s holiday parade also has a standing date (the second Thursday of December) and a business-district setting (down Main Street and Broadway in the heart of town). The pièce de résistance is the fireworks display above Lake Menomin that follows the parade: “It’s absolutely gorgeous, especially if there’s a thin layer of ice (on the lake) and it’s glimmering,” says Joanie Dulin, executive director of Main Street of Menomonie.

While the parade restricts vehicle traffic along its route, businesses have adapted and advertise for visitors to stop in before or after the festivities, Dulin says. Paradegoers visit restaurants or enjoy drink specials at taverns, and last year kids could get their pictures taken with the Grinch at Burger King. To accommodate this year’s celebration, the Menomonie Theater Guild won’t lift the curtain on the evening’s production of A Christmas Story at the Mabel Tainter Theater until after the fireworks have finished.

In addition to visits with Santa and Swiss Miss cocoa on street corners, this year’s WinterDaze parade will feature horse-drawn wagon rides and burning barrels to keep the anticipated 1,000-plus attendees warm. “I think people just love it,” Dulin explains. “The floats are always different. … Some of them are being so creative this year. They all have to be lit up, and that makes for a nice atmosphere as well.”

Holiday Parade Planner

Bridge to Wonderland ParadeSaturday, Dec. 7, 6pm • North Bridge Street, Chippewa Falls • 723-6661 •

WinterDazeThursday, Dec. 12, 4-8pm (parade begins at 6:30pm) • Main Street, Menomonie • 235-2666 •

Clearwater Winter Parade: Rock This CitySunday, Dec. 15, 5-8pm • Water Street, Eau Claire • 839-5032 •

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