After marching more than 50 blocks through North Bergen, Guttenberg, West New York, and Union City in the annual Santa Parade, the revelers were ready for a snack, and Four Star Diner generously provided it to them.
“They cooked at least 500 hamburgers and hot dogs for all the children and the people on the floats and the band members,” said Louis Morales, a captain with Engine 13 of North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue (NHRFR), presenters of the event. The feast at the end of the parade is an annual tradition, but the weather isn’t always so cooperative. “There were some nights we couldn’t wait to get into a hot chocolate. This year was practically like a barbecue.”
Thousands of residents and visitors turned out to enjoy the splendid afternoon on Sunday, Dec. 13 and watch the many trucks, floats, marching bands, cartoon characters, and more make their way down Bergenline Avenue from 85th Street to 32nd, a distance of over 2.5 miles. At times the parade stretched more than 20 blocks long.
“There were some nights we couldn’t wait to get into a hot chocolate. This year was practically like a barbecue.” –Capt. Louis Morales
Approximately a dozen fire trucks took part in the parade, many from NHRFR but also from neighboring towns like Secaucus, Bayonne, and Cliffside Park, which offered firefighters in costume handing out candy to kids.
Denise Pena brought “Baby Pena,” 6-month-old Madalynne, to the event along with friends and family. “My husband Elvis is a fireman,” she said, so she was used to the parade, but not the temperature. “I have to say the weather is totally amazing. I remember last year I was pregnant and it was so cold. And this year, all the kids, even the young ones, can enjoy it. Because you don’t want to bring a 6-month-old baby out in 30 degrees. So this is perfect.”
Charis Lenox from Fairview showed up an hour early to find parking so her son Blake, 3, could enjoy the parade. “We’re always in the [Braddock Park] playground,” she explained. “I met a lot of moms there. And when one hears about something she tells another one and we tell all the moms and then we show up. My husband heard about the parade and we looked online and then I told all the moms about it.”
Generous local sponsors
A parade this large doesn’t happen overnight – and it doesn’t come cheap. “At a bare minimum it costs about $10,000 between the floats and entertainment,” said Morales, one of two chairpersons who organize of the event. “It’s all raised by donations and also these great sponsorships. This is a community thing. I start the campaign in the summer with letters and reaching out to people in the area, businesses, making them aware of the parade. Their contributions help fund the parade.”
Many local vendors and residents contribute. Palisade Medical Center was among the major sponsors, supplying their own float. The towns also contribute, with North Bergen and Guttenberg both providing floats.
Many volunteers helped out along the way, escorting the vehicles for safety, giving out candy, and selling branded hoodies to raise funds. Given the warm weather, hoodie sales this year were not exactly brisk.
This year for the first time there were three marching bands in the parade. “Union City has been with us as long as I can remember,” said Morales. “This is North Bergen’s second year joining us, and West New York’s first year.”
North Bergen had the honor of leading this 2015 parade, after Union City did it last year. The position will rotate. “We give the high school bands a donation back toward the purchase of instruments,” said Morales. “Last year was the first time we did it. We went to North Bergen and Union City High Schools and gave them money for a pizza party.”
North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue was established in 1999, consolidating into one unit the fire departments of five towns: Guttenberg, North Bergen, Union City, Weehawken, and West New York. The third-largest fire department in New Jersey, it serves more than 195,000 residents in the most densely populated area in the United States, covering 10 square miles.
The Santa Parade was first held 16 years ago, shortly after NHRFR was founded. It was held annually until four years ago, when the person in charge retired and no parade was held in 2012.
Then Morales was asked to step in, and he took over, “not knowing what to do or how to do it,” he said. Retired Firefighter Bill Renner, who ran the parade for years when it was smaller, provided some tutoring and advice on organization and gathering sponsorship.
In his first year Morales switched up the route to take it through Weehawken, a noble attempt to include all five towns but a hopeless traffic snafu given the large vehicles and tight corners.
The following year it was back to Bergenline, where it remains. But Morales did switch the timing from a weekday night to a Sunday afternoon, bringing out more kids. He also took on a co-chair, Rafael Albaren from Ladder 5. Albaren represents the North Hudson Firefighters while Morales represents the North Hudson Fire Officers, the two unions who together stage the event.
Kids along the route thrilled to the many cartoon and media characters. Five-year-old Ashley Morales (no relation to Louis), a student at Fulton School, started shouting and pointing the moment she spotted Santa. For Charlotte Ramirez, 5, a North Bergen resident who attends kindergarten in West New York, it was all about the music from “Frozen.”
“I saw Spiderman! I saw Elsa!” shouted Blake Lenox excitedly, almost losing his red fireman’s hat. “I said, ‘Hello!’”
Gifts for kids in hospitals
With the parade behind them for another year, the firefighters are holding their annual gift wrapping party on Friday, Dec. 18. Firefighters and family will gather to wrap gifts for local children.
“Then on Monday we go to area hospitals and give out the gifts to kids who can’t go home for the holidays,” said Morales. “We go around with Santa and characters and visit Palisades Medical Center and The Harborage in North Bergen and Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus.”
The wrapping party, a North Bergen firefighters’ tradition that predates the parade, is a family-and-friends event, complete with a magician for the kids and food donated by area merchants.
“We also hand out an award to a firefighter that exemplifies the spirit of the holiday or is a really great advocate of community service,” said Morales, who was honored with the award last year.
This year’s recipient will be announced on Dec. 18.
Art Schwartz may be reached at email@example.com.