This year marks the 80th Farmers Santa Parade. Danielle Wright goes behind the scenes

Even though the photographs are in black and white, the first Farmers Santa Parade in 1934 looks bursting with colour and vibrancy, children and adults spilling out of all carpark levels next to the old Farmers building, now the Heritage Hotel, waving flags in the heat.

Back then, Farmers founder Robert Laidlaw wanted the parade to be "a gift of fantasy and fanfare for the children of the city". It lived up to its promise then, and has done since, to become a much-loved marker of the start of the festive season.

After being allowed into the magical Farmers Santa Parade costume room one year to interview costume room manager Ronelle Thompson, and seeing the joy the parade brings to the children taking part, last year I decided to sign up my son, Henry, and managed to convince his friend Connor Ramsay and his mum Jo to join us, too. Here's what we discovered:

The Costume Fitting


A couple of excited fairies race past as we enter the costume room filled with outfits lovingly created by Ronelle and Maralyn Meyrick.

Hanging from every corner are costumes such as giant playing cards, laughing clowns and giant dice. There is even a box labelled "bad fairy wands".

Ronelle and Maralyn embody the spirit of Christmas, both delightful people who treat all the kids as if they are their own. It's obvious the hard work they both put into the parade for most of the year, but also the joy it gives them.

They hand us our costumes - Henry is an Indian chief and Connor a cowboy. Jo is a "Charlie" wearing bicycle shorts and a black and white jester top. I'm a "Yoohoo" wearing a black and white checked dress, orange tights, a bonnet, gardening gloves covered in flowers and I hold a watering can.

"You're an old dear," explains Ronelle. "The nosy neighbour who pokes her head over the fence and shouts 'yoohoo'."

I guess now I'm a mum, my days of being given the beautiful princess costume are over. I later learn that some other friends have decided to leave our float and request a more flattering outfit.

Connor and Henry race past, ducking in and out of lanes of costumes, having fun meeting other kids in a game of hide and seek as we're given our costumes. Every child should get the opportunity to explore the costume room, it's a treasure trove for the imagination.

"It reminds me of my childhood," says Jo, whose parents were involved in a light operatic society in Christchurch. "We lived in places like this."

It's evident that the Santa Parade experience and this room will have just as strong a link on our kids' memories, too.

The Acting Lessons

A few weeks before the big day, we're summoned to the Auckland Girls' Grammar hall for some informal acting lessons to give us direction on our parts. It's a chance to ask questions about what will happen on the day and we meet the other characters. It's nice to meet a couple of Yoohoos and we find out we're part of the entertainment troupe - which means we get to wander around off the float and fill any gaps between them, interacting with the crowd. We're told to create a character for our part, such as having a pretend dog on a lead ... it's all about having fun.

The Big Day

Walking down Cook St at 11.30am on the big day, it's amazing how many people are already lined up in position with more than two hours to go. They're given long inflatable tubes to wave around and there's a long queue to get inside the Aotea Centre, where all the volunteers are gathering.

We're hustled inside and taken up to the changing rooms. We find our costumes, change and head to makeup stations. This is the fun part of the day as we get to see all the amazing outfits from the costume room brought to life.

We see pastel lemon and pink fairies with 50s-style swimming cap hats, little Indians with fat tummies sticking out under suede bibs and playing cards getting over-sized mouths painted on their faces.

A multi-talented Willy Wonka, fully made up and wearing massive white sunglasses, a studded belt and black singlet and jeans, is delicately putting face paint on a couple of tween-aged bunnies.

At another station, a pink fairy face twitches as her makeup is applied and kids wearing the same costumes take interest in getting to know each other, bonded by their similar looks.

Connor and Henry race to the bathroom to take a look in the mirror as soon as their faces have been done and, once ready, we walk up Vincent St to our float, the second to last one.

We pass Willy Wonka's float, a nativity scene where brave angels are perched on poles having their feet bound to them (I hope that float doesn't topple over), people with balloon men on their shoulders, Sleepyhead's Princess and the Pea float and a giant Bob the Builder.

We finally arrive at ours, sandwiched between the cheerleaders and Santa, thankfully guaranteeing we won't be attracting too much attention of our own.

Our number 14 float is a three-carriage train with pukeko on one, snowmen in the middle and reindeer, tin soldiers, cowboys and Indians on the front carriage.

"Hey, we met in the costume room," says a little reindeer to Henry as they bond over their game of hide and seek at the costume fitting.

"Do the Gangnam-Style dance," says a little tin soldier to Connor's cowboy, which he does to great applause from the carriage.

Everyone is in a party mood as Santa, who is riding a bicycle, stops to admire Jo's big bunch of black and white balloons that she's been patiently holding for the past hour.

"Oh, I do wish I had a pin," he says cheekily, adding, "Where's the sheep, Little Bo Peep?"
Well, I am wearing a bonnet.

And We're Off

Being second-to-last carriage means it's a long wait, even with ladies from the local hotel popping over with jugs of water for the kids. After an hour and a half, I'm almost ready to climb up the Sleepyhead Float's stack of mattresses and have a lie down, but, at last, we're off, just as war breaks out between the restless snowmen and the Indians.

"We don't want to see any snowmen fighting," says our float leader, as Jingle Bell Rock blasts from underneath them and a loud train whistle wakes us all up.

I wrestle my watering can back from a tin soldier, put on my gloves with their orange flowers stuck to the front and tie my bonnet back on as we head around the corner past the crowds, all well and truly ready for Santa by this stage. I look over at Jo, who is dancing around, smiling, high-fiving the kids and looking totally in her element.

I'm not quite as relaxed but soon realise that if I half-heartedly go up to a child, quietly say "yoohoo" and pretend to empty water on their head from my watering can they look at me like I'm mad, but if I rush up excitedly and do it, they laugh like there's no tomorrow. It's a good life lesson and, even though it's really embarrassing, it has its rewards when the children laugh.

It's obvious that the kids on the parade learn so much, not only about how to work a crowd, but also about taking responsibility for themselves in a controlled environment away from protective parents - there's a lot more to the day than a walk down the street in a costume.

I look back to Jo, who's not quite so smiley now - her big bunch of balloons majestically rising up above the tall buildings as everyone watches. She'd saved them from Santa's imaginary pin, but not the wind. It doesn't stop her for long and soon she's back waving and smiling for the kids and letting them in on the secret that Santa is on the next float.

For someone like me, who hates the feeling of being looked at, particularly while wearing bright orange tights and a bonnet, the experience is stressful, but at least I have seen what goes on so I will feel comfortable if my children want to take part again - this time, with me cheering from the sidelines as they head past me down the road.