The History of the Tulsa Holiday Parade of Lights

by Natasha Ball


J.M. Hall, the often-called Father of Tulsa who partnered with his brother H.C. in the early 1880s to build Tulsa’s first wood-frame mercantile on the northwest corner of First and Main Streets, talked in a Christmas Eve, 1933 Tulsa Daily World article about Tulsa’s first Christmas. There was just one Christmas tree in the whole town, Hall said, cut from Cedar Island up the Arkansas River. The reporter waxed poetic about how the cowboys, the Indians, and the white children huddled in the little Creek village against the icy stubble of the prairie. The atmosphere was festive, though, and the ranch hands fired their pistols into the air to celebrate the arrival of Christmas. Santa Claus was there, too — it was Hall in a red suit — but the reporter didn’t mention that any of the children were wise to that fact.

“Ours was a real get-together,” Hall told the World. “Each of us knew everyone else. There were no strangers…Today there are so many Tulsans, with so wide a variety of interests, that that would be impossible now.”

Planning for the next Tulsa Holiday Parade of Lights begins right after New Year’s. Larry Fox, the parade’s organizer, meets with a handful of volunteers to plot the timeline for the event—who contacts sponsors, who figures out which roads should be closed, where does the TV crew go? The date, always circled in red, is the second Saturday of December.

The first time Fox helped to organize the parade was nearly 25 years ago. Young and eager, he’d signed on as a board intern at Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, which organized, produced, and staffed the parade. When DTU was dissolved in late summer 2009, Fox tried to work a deal with the Tulsa Chamber of Commerce to organize the parade, but the group had no appetite for the parade business. But Fox didn’t want the parade to die. He had less than five months to reverse engineer a metropolitan parade of lights, with the help of just a few volunteers.

Fox liked being the parade board’s chairman. He presided over meetings, gave interviews on TV, hung out with Miss America before the parade. It wasn’t that much work until a few years ago, he said. Lining up sponsors is what keeps him busy for most of the year. Parades are expensive — just to close the streets along the parade route costs $14,000, 30 percent of the total cost of the event.

Work begins on floats and arrangements for the Godzilla-like helium balloons in late summer, in spite of the risk to cost — city permits sometimes aren’t passed until just before an event, sometimes even after they’re over. On the eve of the parade, Fox hosts a competition and awards ceremony for the float builders; on the other side of downtown, the TV crew fires up a couple of grills. They cook out as they unload their trucks and set up the stage where local news anchors will sit the following night, bundled up in coats and scarves as they emcee the televised version of the parade.

Parade day is a blur. In the morning, Fox sets up headquarters near the staging area, where volunteers can add a check next to the names of the parade entries as they arrive. At around 3 p.m., a crew with the Tulsa Police Department closes the streets along the parade route. A group of parade marshals shows up to volunteer, and Fox issues each an orange vest and a walkie-talkie. They take their assigned positions along the parade route, some of them doing the same thing they’ve done for this parade for decades. Some of them stick close to the staging area to feed floats and balloons and 100-piece marching bands onto the parade route. It’s a job that’s reserved for the most experienced among them, a job Larry often handles personally.

The parade steps off at 6 p.m. without much fanfare. There’s no burst of lights or confetti raining down from overhead when the TV broadcast begins; the most parade-goers might hear is the drum major of the first band counting off Jingle Bells. On TV, the job looks easy, like how a good tailor feeds a hem steadily and effortlessly under the needle of a sewing machine. The broadcast lasts only an hour, and mistiming send-offs by just seconds could keep Santa waiting from his post on the final float until after the cameras switch off.

Fox remembers going to the parade as a kid, along with his sister and their parents. It was a Saturday morning parade then. He had a spinster aunt who lived in an apartment at 9th and Main Street. Her living room window was his perch, opened to the cold outside so he could gaze over the parade as it passed through the street and the crowds below.

“We thought it was cool because she had a Murphy bed that folded out of the wall,” Fox said. “I went as a kid. I took my kids when they were little. My wife asked me, ‘Are you still going to do this?’ [And I said:] Who else is going to do it?”

* * *

By the late 1920s, the downtown parade had become a major community event in Tulsa. The members of the Trade Extension Committee of the Retail Merchants Association [RMA], under the leadership of Gary Vandever of Vandever’s Department Store, were the architects of the original parade. The 1927 committee reads like a who’s who in defunct Tulsa department stores: John Dunkin of Brown-Dunkin, James Halliburton of Halliburton-Abbott and Max May of May Brothers were among them. The early predecessors of the suburban shopping malls that helped to close their doors some 40 years later, their stores took up entire street corners, were stacked stories high, employed hundreds, and offered downtown shoppers everything from dry goods to mink coats.

The city had seen its first large-scale Christmas parade the year before, when Santa landed his sleigh and four reindeer in Owen Park 22 days before Christmas. The parade — with Santa and the reindeer on a float near the rear, sandwiched between motorcycle police, the parade marshal, and marching bands — set out east on Easton, zigzagged through town, and ended at the courthouse, where Tulsans had set up an igloo and reindeer corral on the lawn. Sheet music for Jingle Bells was passed to parade goers, and they were instructed to sing when they saw Santa waving from his float as it came toward them. The Tribune reported a crowd of 50,000, saying the 1926 parade was the biggest event ever to hit the town, since wartime at least.

But for the 1927 parade, the winter after Charles Lindbergh landed his transcontinental flight from New York to Le Bourget Field, the men of the RMA were looking for something new, something even more exciting. They decided that Santa should ditch his sleigh in favor of a red and green monoplane, striped like a candy cane and with “icicles” hanging from the fuselage and rigging, with the words “Santa Claus” painted on the underside of the wings. They conspired with the local media to build buzz around their aeronautical scheme.

Assuming Captain Evergreen as his nom de plume, a Tulsa Tribunereporter was assigned to fashion a report on the whereabouts of Santa Claus every day for a week before the 1927 Christmas parade in downtown Tulsa. In the November 21 edition was printed a radiogram:



At about 7:30 p.m. that Saturday, the drone of Santa’s airplane rose in the ears of the crowd waiting downtown. Thousands craned their necks from where they stood on the sidewalks. Two “toymakers” launched green, red, and gold fireworks from the wings of the plane as it flew over the central business district.

It looked like a giant comet, like an amazing skyrocket, the Sunday paper reported. The show continued for several minutes as the plane circled downtown. Then the sky went dark as Santa blazed east for a secret landing at McIntyre Airport.

The next annual report out of the Retail Merchants Association offices hailed the parade as the crown jewel of its second-annual Christmas opening which, like the first one, had “turned out to be a wonderful method of turning the popular thought toward the holiday season and early shopping.” By the winter of 1929, the parade had become a Tulsa institution, said the group’s 1930 report, and plans were nearly complete for the next year’s parade — but without the Santa rocket. The aeroplane was a rather cumbersome way of bringing Santa to Tulsa, the group admitted — after all, the parade had been delayed by more than an hour because the wing of the plane slammed into a tree along North Cincinnati, on the way from the airport to the staging area. There wasn’t any parking in downtown Tulsa for such a vehicle, anyway, they said.

* * *

By 1933, downtown stores stayed open later than their normal hours “in order to accommodate the largest throng of Christmas shoppers that has ever visited Tulsa in any one day,” reported the World. The parade that year featured Santa in a rubber-tired sleigh and wonders from around the world, including Alaskan totem poles and a Japanese couple. Wrote Santa, in a story he penned for the World before the parade: “I want you to see a real Japanese man and wife and see how they travel in a jinrikisha. Japanese are a curious people and while they have a great love like other people they do not believe in the same kind of religion that Americans do.”

The parade had ballooned to a dozen floats by 1950, and the daytime event went by the name “Yuletide,” or “Yule Parade,” according to The Tulsa Spirit, a chamber of commerce publication. The parade suffered a pause thanks to World War II, and organizers delayed the event when President Kennedy was assassinated the day before the scheduled parade day.

In 1980 the parade suffered a schism when a troupe of young baton twirlers was banned from the official Tulsa Christmas parade. The Tulsa Jaycees were the sponsors that year, and they had decided that children couldn’t be part of the professional-grade event they wanted to present to the people of Tulsa. The baton teacher, Sand Springsite Doris Wheelus, asked permission for a second parade following the Jaycee route. Though Jim Gotwals of the Jaycees pleaded with the City Commission to approve only the Tulsa Christmas parade, it OK’d the Jaycee permit as well as Wheelus’ request.

Then-Mayor James Inhofe and Finance Commission head Ron Young were concerned. They weren’t interested in setting a precedent. “What would happen if the city faced three or even four Christmas parade requests the following year?” Inhofe asked his city in the daily paper. He asked the children and the Jaycees to settle their differences. In 1981, there was only one parade, just as Inhofe wanted.

* * *

By 2009, “Christmas” had already fallen out of the official name of the parade. Years of meetings and a series of phone calls and e-mails between the members of the parade board — some members of Downtown Tulsa Unlimited, a rep from previous parade sponsor Public Service Company of Oklahoma [PSO] and Larry Fox — culminated in the sacking of Christmas and the adoption of what they saw as the more inclusive Parade of Lights. When asked about what happened with the name change that year, Stan Whiteford, a rep in media relations at PSO, said, “I don’t know that you could say there was an official name change. We’d always referred to it as the Parade of Lights.”

No one seemed to notice the name change at the time. To the average parade-goer, it was still the downtown Christmas parade. It wasn’t until 2010, when Inhofe publicly declined to join in the parade, that everyone took notice. Inhofe explained that he didn’t want to participate in a celebration in which the word “Christmas” was absent. News of Inhofe’s decision was publicly debated on major media outlets, and even garnered the attention of a New York Times editorial.

* * *

In the November 15, 2011 issue of This Land, publisher Vincent LoVoi printed an open letter to Senator Inhofe, inviting him to participate in the parade once again. Parade organizers opted not to change the name of the parade again this year in hopes of creating a celebration that includes all Tulsans, no matter where they worship or which December holiday they celebrate. Despite the invitation, Inhofe declined the opportunity to participate in the parade.

Several other downtown events will bring Tulsans together with the aim of spreading holiday cheer during and around the Tulsa Holiday Parade of Lights. The sound of thousands of tiny bells tied to the shoelaces of Tulsa runners that’s part of the annual Jingle Bell Run will fill the streets that afternoon; ice skating and horse-drawn carriage rides will be on offer at Arvest Winterfest, just outside the BOK Center, and a pop-up shopping district at 5th and Boston will wrap shoppers looking for Oklahoma-centric gifts in a 200-foot tunnel of lights. For the first time ever, Fox said, the parade line-up will feature entries from a variety of faiths. The Islamic Society of Tulsa has sponsored a float, and the members of Temple Israel and Congregation B’nai Emunah will be in the parade, marching together with helium Happy Hanukkah balloons. They’ll join the marching bands, firefighters, and mascots from Tulsa’s local sports teams, all lined up from a much larger pool of entries than that of the year before.

Throughout its more than 80 years, the parade has transformed from a small-town Christmas shopping event to one of Tulsa’s largest and most inclusive parades. This year it will be a celebration of the city’s diversity—evidence that the city really is becoming a more tolerant and welcoming place for people of all beliefs and creeds. As it grows, it’s doing what a parade is supposed to do.

“It’s for the community,” said Fox. “When you’re down there and you’re walking around and you see kids smile and wave when Santa goes by—that’s why you do it.”