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Lighting the Tree and the Santa Train

Branford's first Holiday Parade was in 1999, but the tradition of Santa's visits to Branford started much earlier!

When started in her position as the Assistant Director for in 1998, she was disappointed to see that only 200 people were present at that year's tree lighting. Back then, the tree lighting mostly involved decorating ; it was sponsored by either the or the , with the Exchange Club providing hot chocolate. But it was not a major community event.

"Next year," Dale told her boss, , "things will be different."

Over burgers at , Dale, Charlotte Mattei, and Catherine Kiernan, all Branford Festival Committee Members, created the plan to start a holiday parade. With cooperation from local businesses in the form of donations, in 1999 the parade was born.

The first year began at the and paraded down Montowese Street and on Town Hall Drive, as Branford Patch readers and noted in the comments from last week's article. But it quickly outgrew these humble beginnings, and the parade route changed to its current start at the . Town departments, especially public works, businesses, and even local neighborhoods are involved in the parade, from creating floats to sponsoring popcorn hand-outs or donating materials. Community members who live along East Main street go all out decorating their houses along the parade route.

"It's just this nice way to bring the community together," Dale said, noting that to celebrate Branford's diversity, the parade has always been called a Holiday Parade. "The community is what makes the parade the best."

Though this year, Branford's traditional visits from Santa have a long history, as  pointed out in last week's comments.

Back in 1965, the Recreation Department sponsored a "Santa Special" train ride from Branford to Old Saybrook, which picked up Santa on the way. About 2,000 Branford kids and adults took the trip that first year, some gathering at the old train station (with parking at MIF), others getting picked up at the Stony Creek stop. Santa himself boarded at the Pine Orchard station (where he arrived in a horse-drawn buggy driven by then Branford First Selectman John Sliney). 

The tradition lasted only a few years; Alex Palluzzi suspects that it ended when the New Haven Railroad was purchased by Amtrak (to become Shoreline East) in 1968. But for those few years, a lot of memories were created and during the late 1990s and early 2000s, a Santa trolley ride recreated that tradition with an electric trolley in downtown Branford. But while those traditions have passed, the parade is going strong, and we can expect many more years of successful in the future.

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