There's arguably no other event in Athens that draws people from across the county like the annual Trustmark Christmas Parade.
Organizers anticipate a large crowd at this year's event, set for 6 p.m. Thursday in downtown Athens. At least 118 entry forms had been received as of Tuesday afternoon, though entries were being accepted until the end of the day Tuesday.
“The turnout was far better than when we started (taking applications),” said Jacob Magnusson, a branch manager with Trustmark Bank and one of the parade organizers.
The entries include an array of floats, classic cars, decorated vehicles, walking groups and at least two groups on horseback. This year's theme is “Christmas Around the World,” which was submitted by Tanner Elementary School third grader Dayana Cruz Caldron.
As in years past, floats will be reviewed by a panel of judges. The grand-prize winner will receive $1,000, while first place will receive $500. The second-place winner will receive $300, while third place will receive $100. The best car will also receive $100, as will the best horse.
The parade grand marshal will be Limestone County Revenue Commissioner G. Brian Patterson, who will be riding in a horse and buggy. Tanner High School's marching band will serve as the lead band in the parade, though marching bands from all county high schools and Athens High School will be participating.
Trustmark Bank President Betty Christopher anticipated a healthy crowd for the parade because of the anticipated weather. Thursday's high will hover near 60 degrees, with nighttime lows in the lower 40s. There's a slight chance of rain Thursday night, but it should hold off until after midnight.
“I can remember one year when it was 17 degrees,” Christopher said.
In 2013, the parade was rescheduled because of a predicted 100 percent chance of rain.
Like Christopher, Athens Police Chief Floyd Johnson anticipates a large crowd for the parade. He asked parade-goers who bring portable heaters to make sure they keep small children away from them and to also keep up with their children.
As has been policy for the last several years, no candy will be thrown from the parade procession to the crowd.
“If they're in the parade and throw candy, we will take them out of the parade,” Johnson said. “It's a major safety concern and we don't want anyone getting hurt.”
He also cautioned drivers because police officers will intermittently block U.S. 31 to allow the parade to cross the highway from Athens Middle School. The procession will travel west on Hobbs Street to The Square, then south down Jefferson Street to Hometown Grocery.
There will be occasional gaps in the parade to accommodate trains on the CSX line through town.
Johnson, who served as parade grand marshal in 2017, said Patterson would do a “fine job.”
“He always tries to outdo me,” Johnson said, adding Patterson previously beat him in an “ugly woman” contest for charity.
When asked if he had any advice for Patterson, Johnson simply said, “Wear a hat.”
Tree lighting, handbells
The parade will be preceded by the annual Christmas tree lighting at 5 p.m. on the southeast corner of the Limestone County Courthouse. The annual event, hosted by the Limestone County Commission, will be emceed by Jamie and Gloria Cooper and will feature carols sung by the Friends of Ripley.
Other attractions include the snow machine and visits by Mother Christmas and Santa Claus.
Two years ago, the commission planted a 12-foot Leyland Cypress on the courthouse lawn to be used for the yearly tree lighting. The tree is now about 14 feet tall and could reach 35 to 40 feet at maturity.
Finally, the handbell choir of First Presbyterian Church will perform in front of the church at 6:15 p.m. Thursday. In case of cold or inclement weather, the concert will be in the church sanctuary.