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ALACHUA ‒ Visitors to the city of Alachua’s Main Street were in for a treat Saturday afternoon, Dec. 12. For the past 36 years the Alachua Chamber of Commerce has hosted the annual Christmas Parade through the downtown area. Each year local businesses, government departments, civic groups and churches sponsor floats to entertain the spectators and compete for prizes. Children anxiously awaited the parade for chance to see Santa Claus and collect the treats thrown from each decorated float or handed out by people walking alongside.

This year however, the world is different due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which is currently surging during the holidays. High Springs canceled its annual evening parade due to concerns about crowd size and ability to social distance, and instead residents had a parade of decorated cars driving around downtown High Springs.

Alachua moved forward with the afternoon parade as an important tradition for area children and to give them a sense of normalcy at Christmastime. All parade participants wore masks as did most of the spectators. While the event was smaller than previous years, both in crowd size and in number of floats and entries, the excitement was palpable among the crowd as they enjoyed the parade. Instead of the usual 35-40 floats, this year there were only 28, but the festivities, enthusiasm and spirit of Christmas celebration were ever present.

This year’s parade theme paid tribute to a throwback collection of classic toys. The parade historically starts with a police escort, and this year was no different. With lights flashing and sirens wailing motorcycle patrolmen led the parade, followed by police cars from Alachua and High Springs.

Families still lined the street in lawn chairs to watch the procession, although they were spread out in their family groups to help create social distancing. Following the police escort was a flag color guard consisting of three Marine veterans. Other members of the Marine Corps League of Veterans followed in two army jeeps outfitted with an American flag waving from a pole. Additional veterans walked along the sidelines handing out candy. City Mayor Gib Coerper followed them, waving at the crowd.

The parade's grand marshal, newly elected Alachua County Sheriff Clovis Watson, Jr., greeted the hometown crowd from a vintage convertible Mustang. The Santa Fe High School Raider Regiment provided the parade’s marching band and engaged the crowd with their holiday tunes.

The City of Alachua’s float, fashioned like a red radio flyer wagon, featured a display of giant-sized favorite children’s toys, including Legos, tinker toys, a barrel of monkeys, and Raggedy Anne. City Commissioners Shirley Green Brown and Dana Miller joined City employees on the colorful float.

Volunteers, walking alongside the floats, were dressed in Christmas attire or portrayed characters such as Santa's elves, and handed out candy to the children along the parade route. For the children, it was a magical time, seeing the colorful floats and costumed characters, along with free candy and gifts.

Other float sponsors included Mi Apa Restaurant, Shriners, Domino’s Pizza, Alachua 4H Club, MatchMaker Realty, All Stars Twirling Academy, Momentum Dance Academy, High Springs Playhouse, Santa Fe Babe Ruth Baseball team, Boy Scout Troop 88 and Pack 88 Cub and Tiger scouts.

As each float passed the judge’s stage at the intersection of 148th Place and Main Street, parade MC's Ben Boukari, Jr., Mike DaRoza and Robert Bonetti announced the sponsor of each float, oftentimes pausing long enough to chat with the participants.

But the best was yet to come as the float everyone was waiting for arrived. Santa Claus waved to the children as he rode by perched on top of a firetruck. Excited youngsters responded by waving and calling out Santa's name to try and catch his attention.

At the conclusion of the festivities, the judges awarded first place to the Momentum Dance Arts float, which was decorated in a Barbie doll theme and featured dancers dressed as vintage Barbie dolls