It has been a holiday tradition for generations of local families - on the first Saturday of December, they bundle up and head out to find a place along the streets of East Toledo, waiting with anticipation to hear the first strains of music and catch the first glimpse of the annual Christmas Parade.
Like all those that came before, this year’s parade, held Dec. 6, featured festive music, floats, fire trucks and of course jolly old St. Nick himself. But something, or rather someone was conspicuously missing.
For the first time in the parade’s 37-year history, Mrs. Santa (aka Joy Perry) wasn’t there to warm the crowds with her infectious grin and wave to the kiddies as she passed by.
“Sitting out the parade was a hard thing to do, but I just haven’t been feeling well,” Perry said, noting that she has suffered with chronic back and breathing problems.
Though she wasn’t able to attend, she was certainly there in spirit, she said.
“I’m a proud East-Sider,” she said. “I think our parade is the best – we don’t have a lot of money to spend, but we have spirit and we have fun.
“I hope the current economic problems won’t dampen that spirit – that people will continue to take care of each other and of their property,” she said.
Perry recalled the parade’s roots, way back when a neighborhood group banded together to protest the construction of a housing development near Ravine Park - housing that community members feared would lead to school overcrowding and the possibility of injuries from high-tension wires near the proposed site.
“We went down to the city and attended meetings, we held marches and ultimately, we were successful in preventing the housing from being built,” she said.
“Then later that year, it was decided to hold a parade to thank the residents on the East Side for their support,” Perry said. “And I was asked to be Mrs. Santa.”
Wearing a red suit fashioned from her mother-in-law’s velour lounging suit, she joined Chris Christoff, whom Perry described as “the perfect Santa,” in the inaugural East Toledo Christmas Parade. (That’s right, Mr. and Mrs. Claus were portrayed by Chris and Joy.)
Through the years, she was joined by many different Santas, cruising the parade route in sleighs pulled by horses, by cars and trucks and even in a bus.
She has watched the streetscapes change and over time, the crowds dwindle. “In the later years, it was sad when we passed the old A & P,” she said. “There were times when there were so many people there wasn’t a spot to stand.”
But through good times and bad, she amassed more than three decades of happy memories. “I loved watching the kids’ faces – they’d always get so excited,” she said. “And I enjoyed seeing my old friends from Waite High School.
“Last year, when we passed the grocery store, there was an older couple sitting on the bench holding hands,” she said. “That sticks in my memory.”
She recalled how she’d always search out the Steelers fans in the crowd and give them an enthusiastic thumbs up. Conversely, those in Browns gear got the thumbs-down – nothing personal, just remnants of a rivalry that started between Perry and her late husband.
Though Perry says she may have to hang up her wig permanently, parade organizers did not find a stand-in this year in the hopes that she’ll take her place next to Santa next year.
“We just felt it would not be right after Joy did it for so long,” said Denny Fairchild, a parade spokesperson. “We hope her health will improve so she can be Mrs. Santa again next year.”