ABINGDON, Va. — The Town of Abingdon is gearing up for another festive season as it recognizes a historic milestone and honors the man who made it all happen.
Bob Copeland said he and other members of Kiwanis Club of Abingdon recently voted to change the name of their sponsored Abingdon Community Christmas Parade to the Sammy Campbell Memorial Christmas Parade in honor of Campbell, who singlehandedly started the parade 50 years ago. Campbell passed away earlier this year.
Club members anticipate the 50th annual parade could be one of the biggest yet.
The anniversary parade kicks off at 6 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1, with as many as 60 participants marching through Main Street — from Court Street to Palmer Street — during the one-hour event.
According to Amanda Bailey, Kiwanis Club parade co-chair, community members still have time to apply to participate in the parade. Entry forms and fees will be accepted through Monday, Nov. 19. A late fee will be applied to entry forms received after the Nov. 19 deadline.
All entries are expected to reflect the true spirit of Christmas with their decorations.
“I can’t wait to see what creative entries we have this year,” said Bailey. “Previously, 4-H had a hilarious entry based on National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. We’ve had a live rock band that performed on a flatbed trailer and wonderful floats from local churches that really embrace the spirit of the season.”
At the request of Lois Campbell, Campbell’s widow, this year’s parade will include a grand marshal dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume.
“Sammy loved all things Disney. His wife thought it would be fitting to honor him in this way,” Copeland said.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office Honor Guard will lead the parade, followed by Kiwanis Club members, who will carry a club banner.
“Participants who come early get placed in the front. If you arrive later, you’re more apt to be placed closer to Santa in the back,” said Bailey.
The annual parade is the second-largest fundraising event for Kiwanis Club of Abingdon. The club raises approximately $2,500 from the event each year. Proceeds from parade registration fees are used to fund youth programs in the county, such as the Washington County Public Library Summer Reading Program, Trout in the Classroom, Friends of Santa and Families and opportunities for local high school students to attend coastal environmental programs.
“It’s always been a fun and exciting event and a unifying force in town,” said Copeland, who began helping with the parade after moving to Abingdon in 1975. “We still love putting it on every year. It’s part of who we are and where we live.
The parades continue to thrive despite enduring several changes throughout the years.
“Sammy was a self-starter. He created something the town didn’t know it needed. Sammy took care of everything,” said Copeland, whose memories of the earlier parades are fresh. “He lined up all the sponsors for the floats and arranged for the high school bands to perform.
“If you just showed up the night of the parade, there’d be a place for you,” said Copeland, who explained early participants were not required to register before the parade.
While current parade regulations account for all participants, earlier parades accepted participants at the last minute — and sometimes they slipped into the end of the parade without notice.
Copeland humorously recalled that one year teenagers dressed in Goth clothes entered the parade route in a black hearse and drove down Main Street showing their middle fingers.
“Then one year, a group of ATV riders, who had not reserved spaces, rode through the parade slinging mud from their bikes into the crowd,” Copeland recalled.
For the past few years, the parade has been regulated by Bailey, who created an application process to know who is participating in the parade and how to place them in the parade route.
“She’s our new Sammy Campbell,” said Copeland.
Copeland said some lessons about organizing the parade were learned the hard way.
“One of the earliest lessons we learned was that the horse and riders would show up at the last minute and fall into the parade ahead of the band. Finally, we learned our lesson and placed the horses at the back of the parade for obvious reasons,” he said with laughter.
Floats in earlier parades were pre-manufactured and not designed by their local sponsors.
Campbell contracted with a company in North Carolina that traveled from one small town to another, renting a series of premade Christmas floats.
“Sammy would go through town selling the float designs to merchants in town,” Copeland said.
“The parade also was held well before Thanksgiving, and that was during a time when merchants did not promote Christmas as early as they do now.”
In 2006, discontentment with the parade spurred organizers to change the way things were done.
Earlier parades had been running for 2 ½ hours and were held at night to accommodate travel time for the North Carolina company who brought the floats to town. Copeland recalled that some years it was so cold that no one was able to ride on the floats. Police in town also said the lengthy parade was tying up traffic.
As a result, the parade was moved to Saturday mornings — but has since been moved back to a night-time event.
“A lot of parade participants felt they played second fiddle to these folks in North Carolina who provided the floats, and many of them wanted a parade that was held closer to Christmas,” said Copeland.
Kiwanis Club members decided to move the parade to after Thanksgiving, and the pre-manufactured floats became a thing of the past, since most participants wanted to decorate their own displays.
A new, regulated system also allowed the parades to run much shorter in time.
Unfortunately, Campbell, who did not agree with the changes, left the Kiwanis Club and stepped down as organizer of the parade before his death earlier this year.
“We were very sad about his leaving the club,” said Copeland. “We will fondly remember him for his enduring love for our hometown parades and the generous amount of time he devoted to them each year.
“I think he’d be glad to know his Christmas parades are still alive and making people happy.
“While we’re a community-based parade now with no professional floats anymore, we are still a grassroots effort, focusing on including everyone who is part of the community.”
Official entry forms and instructions can be found online at http://abingdonkiwanis.org/annualchristmasparade.html. Paper entry forms and instructions are available at the Washington County Public Library in Abingdon.
For more information about the parade, contact Amanda Bailey at Abingdonchristmasparade@gmail.com.