On Thanksgiving Day 1920, the leaders of Gimbel’s department store at Ninth and Market streets in Philadelphia came up with an unusual idea. It sponsored a parade.

(Macy’s in New York stole the idea and sponsored a Thanksgiving parade there four years later.)

Adam Gimbel had come over from Bavaria in 1840, and started his first store in Indiana in 1842.

The Gimbel family opened their store in Philadelphia in 1894, near the two already established stores operated by John Wanamaker and by Justus Strawbridge and Isaac Clothier.

Wanamaker was born in South Philly in 1838. He opened his first store, Wanamaker & Brown, at Sixth and Market in 1861, with his brother in-law Nathan Brown. After Brown’s death, he renamed the business John Wanamaker & Co.

He bought the old Pennsylvania Railroad freight depot at 13th and Market streets in 1875, and set up a new kind of store, selling many things in separate departments.

Strawbridge and Clothier, Philadelphia Quakers, had torn down the house at Eighth and Market that was Thomas Jefferson’s office when he was secretary of state, to build a store.

Parades were held on other holidays, but not on Thanksgiving, until Gimbel got the idea to launch the 1920 Christmas shopping season that way.

So 50 Gimbel’s employees, their families and friends, with 15 automobiles, paraded along Market Street. A city fireman dressed as Santa Claus climbed a ladder to the window in the store’s toy department, inventing a tradition.

It was the first such parade in the United States, but in Canada, on Dec. 2. 1904, Santa Claus had walked in a parade from Union Station in Toronto to the downtown Eaton’s department store.

The next year, the Toronto Santa Claus Parade was made official, again on Dec. 2, this time with a single float joining the marchers.

Thanksgiving, of course, is a United States holiday. The annual Santa Claus Parade in Toronto is now on the third Sunday in November.

The Canadian parade these days has about 30 floats and 20 marching bands. I think Toronto also has a big tree-lighting event at the Eaton Centre mall. If any Canadians are reading this and find something incorrect, excuse me; I don’ usually cover anything north of Manayunk.

They may have already had this year’s Santa Claus Parade in Toronto, and I imagine that they may, as I know they did last year, have had Santa Claus riding in a sleigh “drawn” by artificial reindeer, which is usual in United States parades. I don’t think they had eight deer.

Various sponsors have kept the Philadelphia parade going, and I think they always have eight artificial reindeer fastened in front of Santa’s sleigh. The number, of course, comes from Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”

In the earliest days of the Santa Claus canon, there was only one reindeer pulling the sleigh. Moore described eight reindeer, and gave them their widely accepted names: Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Dunder (variously spelled Donder and Donner) and Blixen. (Rudolph is an annoying later ninth interloper.)

The only serious contender for reindeer naming was L. Frank Baum, the creator of the Wizard of Oz, in a 1902 story, "The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus." Baum tried to tell us there were 10 reindeer.

Flossie and Glossie were Santa's principal reindeer in Baum's story. The other eight were named Racer and Pacer, Fearless and Peerless, Ready and Steady and Feckless and Speckless.

Not in my Thanksgiving Parade.

Visit columnist Jim Smart’s web site at jamessmartsphiladelphia.com.

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