Niantic Light Parade is about more than lights

Santa and Mrs. Claus wave from Niantic's antique fire engine during the 2016 Niantic Light Parade.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
Santa and Mrs. Claus wave from Niantic's antique fire engine during the 2016 Niantic Light Parade. (Tim Cook/The Day)

It’s easy to say that the town of East Lyme likes to go all out for its Niantic Light Parade — the annual holiday celebration that has illuminated downtown Niantic since 1988. From light-up Santa sleighs and dance groups twirling in LED tutus, to an oversized Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer riding in a makeshift airplane fixed on top of a bucket truck, the light parade has managed to expand in size and popularity over the years, growing ever brighter.

The reasons behind all of that, besides, of course, the thousands and thousands of bulbs that go into making this parade a one-of-a-kind event, might have something to do with the people involved — both those participating in the parade and those who stand along Main Street’s sidewalks each year.

This dedication to participate in the event might be, perhaps, most evidenced by Niantic resident, owner of Signcraft Signs and member of the town’s parade committee John Wilson — a man known for the ornate floats that he builds with the help of family and friends for every parade.

Besides his aforementioned Rudolph, who rode through town in 2013, he was also the mastermind behind a "Frozen" float — which won first place in the float competition last year. In fact, Wilson and his group win the award every year. There was also the "Christmas Submarine" in 2006 inspired by The Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" (the float was accompanied by parade-goers singing "We all live in a Christmas submarine" as it passed along the street.) And, in 2004, a Boston Red Sox "Green Monster" wall towered over the crowds after the team won the World Series that year against the Yankees.

Wilson’s float theme this year, is, of course, a secret, but he did give a hint while talking to The Day in a phone interview on Monday: There will be two characters, and their names start with the same letter.

“We can’t see ourselves stopping. I can’t ever see myself standing on Main Street and watching the parade. I always want to make a float,” he says.

But even though Wilson has never stood in the crowds, per se, that doesn't mean he hasn’t witnessed the town's dedicated participation in the event.

“You see people that were 10 years old when it started, and now they’ve got kids and are bringing them to the parade,” he says.

He laughed about how parade-goers will come out at 7 or 8 in the morning on the day of the parade just to lay claim to their viewing spots.

“If you were just driving into town, you would be like, ‘What’s going on here?’ seeing beach chairs lining the road in December,” he says.

In fact, it is expected that 10,000 to 15,000 people will come from around the region to line the streets, and in the parade, over 50 floats have registered to participate (that doesn’t include the numerous dance groups and drum and fife bands, along with other non-profit organizations and businesses also walking in the parade).

To kick off the event this Saturday, carolers will sing along Main Street starting at 4 p.m., and food trucks will line Methodist Street. And thanks to the parade’s scheduling on a Saturday, you can expect downtown’s restaurants and bars to be bustling afterward too.

“I know from talking to people and hearing from people that they circle this day on the calendar and everyone has a house party before the parade starts.

“Changing the parade from a Sunday to a Saturday night, I think, helps it even more,” he says, referring to a parade committee decision made five years ago.

Wilson, who modestly participated in the town’s first parade by dressing up like a tree of sorts, with sticks and Christmas lights taped to his 1980s “Eskimo jacket,” hints that if it weren’t for the town and its close-knit community, the parade might not have held up as well as it has.

“I think that there is something really special about having this parade on our Main Street. It brings a certain Christmas cheer to our parade that can’t be found really elsewhere. We have gone to participate in other parades in the area, and they don’t compare … Even in Mystic, it didn’t quite feel the same,” Wilson says. “It’s a small-town parade, but there are huge numbers of people that tap into this one little street once a year. We must be doing something right.”

Niantic Light Parade, 6 p.m. Saturday, Main Street starting at Columbus/Haigh avenues, ending on Pennsylvania Avenue; rain date 5 p.m. Sunday; (860) 739-5828.



Dancers from All the Right Moves Dance Center light up the night during last year's Niantic Light Parade.  (Tim Cook/The Day)
Dancers from All the Right Moves Dance Center light up the night during last year's Niantic Light Parade. (Tim Cook/The Day)


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