Rudy Ad from 1923

Rudy Ad from 1923

Paducah’s annual Christmas Parade will be on Saturday, December 6, beginning at 5 p.m., wending from 14th and Broadway to 2nd Street. Themed “Christmastime at the Movies,” this year’s parade is sure to be a festival of music and lights. And, as he faithfully does year after year, Santa Claus himself will appear at the end of the parade on his own special float. 

And, of course, that got us wondering here in the Local and Family History Department, when did the tradition of Christmas Parades start in Paducah?

On record, the longest running Christmas parade in the United States belongs to Peoria, Illinois which has been ongoing since 1887 (with Santa making his first appearance in their parade in 1888). Now of course, Santa Claus has been visiting children in Western Kentucky ever since there have been children nestled all snug in their beds, but it would take a few more years before Santa started making public, daytime visits in Paducah…and those visits were courtesy of Rudy’s Department Store.

From the 1880’s until the big flood in 1937, Rudy’s Department Store was a venerated Western Kentucky institution, and thanks to the photographs we now have as part of our Kate Rudy Emery Collection, we can truly see how vast and grand a store they were. Rudy’s occupied an entire half block between 3rd and 4th streets on Broadway, as well as a portion the City National Bank Building (now US Bank). With three floors of merchandise, including a Toyland on the top floor, Rudy’s was quite certainly the place to shop for all of Paducah’s Christmas needs.

Rudy’s was especially known for their window displays, going as far as to hire a designer from New York to arrange their windows for Christmas. It’s in one of these Rudy’s Christmas windows in which we find Santa making his first public, daytime appearance in Paducah. A 1903 ad for Rudy’s stated, “Santa Claus will pay us his annual visit this year, appearing in window every afternoon at 3:45 until Xmas. He cordially invites all the little ones to come down.”

While people may have paraded in front of the Rudy’s windows to see Santa, that does not make it a Christmas parade. Flash forward five years to December 14, 1908 and a report in the Paducah Sun informs us that Rudy’s Department Store made Santa a bit more mobile. Said the article, “Saturday afternoon was a big shopping day. Every store on Broadway reports a big day’s business. Rudy and Ogilve [another Paducah store] furnished excitement for probably a thousand children and grown people in the afternoon, Rudy with his visit from Santa, in an auto, and Ogilvie with the jolly old fellow in his airship.” (By “airship” we assume they meant Santa’s flying sleigh)

Though this 1908 article suggests that Santa held gone from his sedentary seat in the window to the moving seat of a car, we’re still hesitant to call this “a Christmas parade.” It’s not until 1923 that we find hard evidence, in print and photos, of a bonafide Christmas parade.

The attached Rudy’s ad from 1923 says outright, “Rudy’s has arranged for a wonderful decorated float and a big parade to meet him [Santa] and escort him in triumph to the store.” And if you follow the link below to the Rudy photo collection on our library website, you’ll be greeted with an absolutely stunning photo of this very float, complete with the advertised “jolly” clowns, Boy Scout escorts, and Santa Claus perched high on the float.

Take a few minutes to look through the rest of the collection as well. Not only are there more parade photos (one of which shows throngs of Paducahans on Broadway watching the parade), but also many pictures of Rudy’s brilliant window displays.

–Matt Jaeger