Coordinating Christmas: Craig McRae’s Story

By Annette Dawm, WorkStory Ambassador

Craig McRae plays many roles in life. He is a husband, father, musician, and a Master of Ceremonies for many of the Canadian Cancer Society’s Relay for Life events. He is also the owner and operator of an ATM company. On top of this, he runs Canada’s largest vocal competition and perhaps most notably, Craig describes himself as Santa and Mrs. Claus’s “tallest elf”.

Craig became one of Santa’s many helpers by following in his father’s footsteps as the Band Coordinator for “the world’s largest and longest running children's parade”— the Toronto Santa Claus Parade.  This year is the 111th anniversary of the magical event and Craig is very proud to have been a part of it for most of his life:

“I have worked the parade since I was about 10 years old.  I used to help my Dad, George McRae, with his bands. He is a retired High School Music Teacher from Malvern Collegiate Institute. He always had his band in the parade, and I was a band helper! My father was involved with the parade for 60 years, and when he retired from teaching, he became the parade's band coordinator, a position that had not existed before, but the [organizers] realized that music was a very important part of the parade! I was always his right hand man, and when he retired after 60 years, I took over that position! (One funny note -- I've never actually seen the parade as a spectator --I've always worked it, and enjoyed doing so.)”

“I look after all aspects of music within the parade. This involves scouting and hiring all the bands (usually between 20-28 bands) and organizing them within the parade, with months of planning on a huge, well-scripted parade lineup. I try to set certain bands up within certain sections of the parade, to try to match up colour, style, and size with whatever else might be contained within that certain section. It is a ton of work, and it does take all year, but in the last 2 months [prior to the parade] things really heat up!”

In total, Craig is in charge of approximately 2500-3000 musicians, with some coming as far away as Ohio! In the past, bands have also travelled from Kentucky, Georgia, Texas and California to participate with many Canadian bands along the parade route.

Something that people might be surprised to learn about the spectacle according to Craig is that they “literally start prepping for the following year's parade the moment the parade ends.” So everyone involved has to think about Christmas year round. They also collect data from every aspect of the procession in order to continue its successful run.

“We track all bands/times/people/weather/events that happened during the parade, and start to see what worked, what didn't work … and what we should do to improve next year! Then we start to look at what bands to re-hire for next year, and then spend the next year fielding calls from bands all across North America. Usually anywhere from 40-70 bands contact me to see who should be in the next year's parade!”

The Toronto Santa Claus Parade is well known for its hugely creative floats: “All the floats are re-created and recycled each year,” says Craig, “but the one that is the oldest and my favourite, is the Mother Goose float; many years it's been a Canadian goose – but it's just elegant and beautiful.”

And what’s a Santa Claus Parade without Santa? Over the years, Craig has become good friends with Santa and his wife, but admits that he probably didn’t make “the nice list” this year, even though he has a special connection…

“The fact that I get to visit the North Pole on a regular basis and meet with Santa and Mrs. Claus is the most exciting thing of all - I've known them for a long time, and they trust me, which I appreciate…. The two of them are really so nice, and it's a pleasure to be able to know them so closely.” In addition to working with the famous couple, Craig’s favourite part about working at the Santa Claus Parade is seeing all of the hard work come to fruition each year:

 “Once the parade starts moving, [it’s an] absolutely beautiful sight, seeing hundreds of thousands of kids and families enjoy such a beautiful thing. It is beyond words, and beyond magical!”

If you’d like to join in on the magic next year, Craig explains how you can help. “The parade is a non-profit, volunteer organization, and we LOVE volunteers! It's been running for well over 100 years and is the world’s largest and longest running children's parade. Anyone that wants to help can contact us here!”

If you are planning to attend the event but haven’t done so before, here is Craig McRae’s advice for watching The Toronto Santa Claus Parade in person:

“Be prepared for a long day! Bring chalk for kids to draw on the road, Santa reads all the signs the kids make and dress warmly even if it's warm out; Bring food and mostly, bring smiles and happiness and something to sit on!” Click here to visit the parade’s official website for more information.

You can also watch the parade from home on your TV, computer or mobile device on Sunday, Nov. 15 at 4:30 ET/PT on CTV, and 5:30 p.m. AT on CTV Atlantic, and on CTV GO. The parade will also be available to watch online after its initial broadcast in case you miss it! You can even tweet to Santa if you’d like, @TOSanta