by Jim Bray
 
Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the Christmas Parade of Lights under Rotary leadership.  In the beginning, and for many years, the Christmas Parade of Lights was organized and run by the Lions Club of Santa Maria. During the first years, the parade ran south on Broadway, from Fesler to Boone Streets.  Surprisingly, traffic was allowed to continue on Broadway, using the western lane while the parade ran down the east side of the street!
 
Unfortunately, in 1994 the parade did not happen at all.  Disappointed in the loss of this annual holiday tradition, some local Rotarians in the Santa Maria Breakfast Rotary Club decided to take on the project of resurrecting the parade and making it bigger and better than ever. They were assisted with the early financial support of the Santa Maria Times.  It was also decided to make this a real community event by asking participants and viewers alike to bring non-perishables to the parade to be donated for the benefit of the Salvation Army – particularly canned soups, pastas, vegetables and cereal.  As a result, this effort has grown into the largest canned food drive of its kind on the Central Coast.  Each year at the Christmas Parade of Lights, almost a ton of canned goods are collected for use, which will generally last into the spring. Because of the charitable focus of the parade, the theme over the years has been “The Joy of Giving.”
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One of the first things organizers did when the parade was revived in 1995 was to change the direction of the parade and start at the Santa Maria Inn and go north, finishing at the Town Center Mall.  The Rotarian organizers secured permission from the city and Caltrans to completely close Broadway during the parade.  This allowed viewers to comfortably see the parade from both sides of the street, as well as provide greater safety to the participants. Parade organizers also stationed announcers, in English and Spanish, along the parade route.
Realizing this effort was much too big for one Rotary Club, the second year (1996) saw the combination of all three Santa Maria Rotary Clubs (Breakfast, Noon and South), as well as the Rotary Club of Nipomo, come together to organize and run the event.  It has been a joint effort ever since with planning beginning each year in August.
 
In 1997, organizers purchased figurines from the sponsorship proceeds, and with help from the city, placed them along the median in front of the mall.  In 2001, local television stations KCOY and KKFX began broadcasting the parade live.  In 2003, due to the large crowds that were turning out for the event — estimated now at some 25,000 to 30,000 people — the parade was extended starting at Stowell and Broadway.
 
For the first time in 2004, new holiday banners were hung on Broadway. These banners were the result of donations from the local Rotary Clubs and the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce.
 
In 2006, the Santa Maria Christmas Parade of Lights website was created (www.smparadeoflights.org) and today is a key part of the parade experience.  This website allows parade applications to be completed and submitted on line, as well as other information including the parade route, street closures, parade history, and a photo gallery of past parades.
 
Also in 2006, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) helicopter kicked off the parade with a flyover of the parade route.  The idea came from parade co-chairman Mike Gibson who figured if the Rose Parade had a flyover, “why can’t we have a fly over of our own?”  In 2012, California Shock Trauma Air Rescue (CALSTAR) provided the helicopter, and will again fly for the 2013 parade.  These flyovers have become a much anticipated part of the parade.
 
As we celebrate our 20th year of parade sponsorship, the four local Rotary clubs have been proud to be a part of this community celebration.  We are extremely grateful for the approximately 2,500 participants, almost 250 community volunteers, local city and law enforcement personnel, KCOY and KKFX, and over 100 Rotarians who have helped make the Christmas Parade of Lights a truly signature community event for the Santa Maria Valley.