Unmotorized but unfazed, Raleigh Christmas parade marches to a familiar beat

Proving that a holiday parade is more about feelings than firetrucks and floats, thousands of people came out for Raleigh’s first motor-vehicle-free Christmas parade on Saturday.

“It’s grand. It’s beautiful,” said Puja Lunkad, who stood on Fayetteville Street with her husband, Akash, and daughter Saisha as marching bands, dance troupes, step teams and beauty queens passed by.

The family, who recently moved to Morrisville, was attending their first Raleigh Christmas Parade and didn’t seem to mind that this year’s event moved at a more halting pace, with a couple of pauses so long that some of the thousands of people who came out began packing up their chairs and baby strollers before Santa made his appearance.

When he did arrive, Santa epitomized the importance of adjusting to changing circumstances by trading horsepower for actual horses, making his first appearance of the season in a carriage pulled by a festively dressed equine team.

This year’s Raleigh Christmas Parade almost didn’t happen.

During the 2022 parade, the driver of a truck pulling a float behind the CC & Co. Dance Complex lost control of the vehicle, striking 11-year-old Hailey Brooks, a member of the troupe. She died of her injuries.

The driver, Landen Glass, 20, a former dancer with the group, was charged with death by motor vehicle, careless and reckless driving, improper equipment, unsafe movement and carrying a firearm in a parade.

April and Trey Brooks of Raleigh, Hailey’s parents, sued the driver, the dance company, the company that provided the float and the Greater Raleigh Merchants Association, which organized the parade, saying well-known safety protocols would have prevented the accident if they had been adopted and enforced.

Lawsuits and criminal charges in the case still are working their way through the courts.

Meanwhile, N.C. Sen. Mary Bode introduced legislation to require parade organizers in cities with 35,000 or more residents to make sure parade vehicles have been inspected and are registered and insured. It also would require drivers in parades to be at least 25 years old and have a valid driver’s license.

The legislation has not been approved.

Barring those or other state rules, the City of Raleigh decided in September to cancel this year’s Christmas parade, even as participants were polishing their floats and performances. Amid the outcry that followed, including from Hailey’s parents, who said the city should have crafted and adopted safety procedures in the time since their daughter’s death, the city reversed the decision but banned the use of vehicles in the parade.

The Merchants Association, confident that businesses, marching bands and nonprofits would still queue up for the event, continued to bill it as the largest parade between Washington, D.C., and Atlanta.

Spectators began arriving well ahead of the 9:30 a.m. start time, some dressed for the much colder weather of parades past, others wearing shorts, T-shirts, flip-flops and Santa hats.

They were rewarded by a procession of dozens of entries, most of them groups who covered the parade route on foot. The ban on motorized vehicles inspired some creativity: with no floats on which to prop smiling pageant winners or small groups of musicians, several went old school, relying on horse-and-buggy combos. Others built rolling platforms that they pushed along the road.

Wagons were a popular addition, some carrying babies, others hauling dogs. A group representing a towing company outfitted wagons to look like tiny roll-backs. A group of Segway riders, some in holiday costumes, paused periodically to do spinning tricks and loopedy-loops almost like the Shriners on Motorcycles that used to be regulars in the parade.

If vehicles were missed, it might have been in a good way. Compared to previous years, it seemed a little easier to hear the sounds of the Helping Hand Marching Band’s bass drums ricocheting off the old Briggs Hardware Building and the Wake County Courthouse. And without the scent of idling diesel engines, parade-goers could catch the smell of Benny’s Pizza being baked for them to buy by the slice when the parade was over.

The event wasn’t without glitches; ironically, the one car allowed in was a giant balloon version of Lightning McQueen, star of the animated “Cars” movies series, which went out of control on Fayetteville Street at the Morgan Street intersection. Despite at least a half-dozen handlers holding tight to the balloon’s tethers, it caught a big gust of wind, wobbled wildly and nearly crashed into a nearby building before being pulled back into line.

A giant penguin balloon wearing a top hat also listed dangerously to its left as handlers cinched down its ropes to keep it close to the ground in the erratic winds.

Brittanie Johnson of Raleigh, who came with her sister, Gabby Wilson, and their four young children, hardly noticed the absence of motorized vehicles.

“I think in the eyes of the kids, it’s the same,” Jonson said. “And that’s really who we come for. To make their Christmas magical.”