WHEELING - Old Saint Nick, the jolliest of all elves, made an early appearance in Wheeling in mid-November, kicking off the Christmas season at the 26th annual Perkins Restaurant and Bakery Fantasy In Lights Parade.
Dressed in a bright red suit and sporting a long white beard, Santa Claus, led by his reindeer, chuckled and waved to all the Ohio Valley children who braved the cold temperatures to see him. He waved cheerfully while bellowing "Ho, ho, ho - Merry Christmas!"
Before his appearance at the end of the parade, Santa was ushered in by dozens of schools, local businesses and community groups. Santa followed 89 colorful floats, marching bands, dance troupes, mascots and other entries for the downtown Wheeling event that attracted thousands of people.
"The floats have gotten prettier over the years," said Ann Gallagher, who has been attending Wheeling winter parades since a young age. This year she shared a spot on Market Street with husband Vince, son Scott and grandchildren Megan and Kevin Gallagher.
Some of the floats the Gallaghers got to see were the Wheeling Jesuit University patriotic vehicle, American Electric Power's brightly lit stage and the giant version of the leg lamp from holiday film "A Christmas Story" crafted by Ohio Valley Foot and Ankle Center.
A total 17 marching bands represented the Ohio Valley from the massive Wheeling Park and Buckeye Local high schools to the Valley High School of Pine Grove and Martins Ferry High School bands. Two bands trekked from afar - Philip Barbour High School of Philippi, W.Va., and North Marion High School of Farmington, W.Va. - to participate. Triadelphia and Warwood middle schools combined their marching band numbers into one group and played together through the Wheeling streetscape.
"I came to watch my friend's cheer team," said Madelyne Gill, who came with her brother and grandmother.
Among those dancing groups were Toni Zeake's Wheeling Rockettes, The Dance Factory, Laughlin Chapel Girls Club and the Arielettes. Each group hopped, skipped and jumped to everything from traditional holiday tunes to hip-hop.
Many costumed mascots kept the children laughing with antics, crowd high-fives and hugs. The Pittsburgh Pirates Parrot made an appearance and the inflatable Undo's Restaurant "Zooperstars" waved to the crowd. New this year were "The Headlines" created by students at West Liberty University's Sculpture I class, which were bobblehead-looking molds of various celebrities' heads on their costumed creators.
Before the parade's start, Winterfest attracted a sizable crowd to its craft show, food vendors and faux-ice skating rink for its second year at nearby Heritage Port. Local youth Aiden Polanski had his "ups and downs" on the ice but was having fun.
Winterfest will continue this weekend from noon to 2 p.m. today with free pictures with Santa and more entertainment through the evening and Sunday.
"Wheeling still has a sense of community," said Vice Mayor Eugene Fahey as he looked out at all the people who went to the parade. "It shows this is where people in the Ohio Valley come for celebrations and it proves downtown is a center for events."