Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Mentioning the Christmas parade invokes a lot of memories of Palatka residents who have gone since they were children.
Friday’s parade was yet another addition to those memories as thousands of people gathered along St. Johns Avenue as early as an hour before its 7 p.m. start time. Many people of all ages donned festive accessories and wore light sweaters ahead of the mid-60s weather.
But the real magic happened behind the scenes, as the dozens of floats lined the riverfront, adorned with bright lights, Christmas-themed costumes and smiling faces ready to participate in the annual tradition.
Many of those who helped organize and participated in the parade have been attending for as long as they could remember.
Katie Long, the co-founder of Palatka Young Professionals and who has volunteered at the parade for two years, remembers having been in the parade as a child in a dance troupe. She said being able to participate and attend gives people the chance to see the community’s creative side and ability to come together.
“I wonder if there are other communities out there that have the same small town feel that Palatka has,” said Long, who helped oversee 12 floats in the parade. “Here you really get to see the southern feel we have here, the hospitality and the friendship.”
Others, like Betty Hodges-Williams, are giving back to the community that has seen them grow. Hodges-Williams runs Betty’s Dream Team, a dance group that has performed in the parade for 18 years. Many of her 12 students who danced at the parade are the children of students who danced under direction.
“I have grandstudents here,” said Hodges-Williams, who lives in St. Augustine but teaches dance in Palatka. “It’s been that long.”
Having performed with a group in Palatka growing up, bringing her group to the parade is a way of giving back to the community that watched her grow.
And she isn’t the only one to come from beyond city limits to participate in the parade. Richard Grabe of Winter Park has been dressing up as the Grinch since the early-2000s.
Grabe, who has attended the parade in Palatka since 1981 with his wife and her family, was only a spectator until one year he was invited to join a float and dressed as the character in a costume he pieced together.
A new tradition was born the next day, when he was told he was mentioned in the Palatka Daily News.
A locksmith for Orlando City Hall, Grabe gathers donated toys from his coworkers and others in the community. The day of the parade, joined by his family, he handed out the toys and candy to the children he saw while walking along St. Johns Avenue.
He’d occasionally stop for a photo and a hug, even as his nephew and nieces yelled for him to catch up with the rest of the parade.
“It’s the season to be nice to everyone,” Grabe said. “It’s not that hard to accommodate people who just want a high-five.”
Even before the parade, he made those accommodations by greeting passers-by while waiting for the signal to start walking. And parade goers seem to appreciate him being there as part of the memory.
“I guess I have a big fan base,” he said. “Sometimes people come up to tell me about the pictures they took with me from past years.”