NewsNews Features

The Downtown Parade of Lights Returns and More Holiday Events

The Downtown Parade of Lights returns Thursday after a pandemic hiatus. Credit: Savannah Cole/file

Festive Athenians, take heart: The Downtown Parade of Lights is back and merry as ever. 

Brave the chill on Thursday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. to watch approximately 50 floats from organizations around the community—among them the Clarke Central and Cedar Shoals High School marching bands, the Classic City Roller Girls and, of course, Santa—travel through downtown. As a result of construction on Clayton Street, the parade is scaled down and will follow an alternate route that is expected to yield a quicker procession. 

This year’s theme is a “superhero holiday.” Rather than just one grand marshal, two nurses will serve and lead the procession in honor of Athens’ own health-care heroes. St. Mary’s Hospital selected Luke Duncan, a registered nurse in the Neurosciences Critical Care Unit, and Piedmont Athens Regional Hospital chose Laura Breckenridge, a registered nurse in the Cardiac Telemetry Unit. 

“These are real life superheroes who have served the community and have been working so hard to keep us healthy,” said Cathy Padgett, community relations specialist for Athens-Clarke County Leisure Services. “It just seemed really appropriate this year as we continue to battle COVID-19.”

Participants and spectators are also encouraged to pay tribute to heroes, real or fictional.

The absence of the Parade of Lights last year left a void for those who ring in the holiday season with the festivity. Padgett was frequently asked if there would be a parade, and when she had to say no because of COVID-19, the reaction was one of chagrin. “They understood, but it was still disappointing,” Padgett said. 

This year, Athens’ close-knit charm is back on display, an important reminder amid the city’s rapid growth. “We have all these apartment buildings and all this stuff going up around us, but you can really capture that small town feel when you have a parade that brings in people from all across the community,” Padgett said. “We have school groups; we have businesses; we have twirlers; we have high school bands. It just gives it that real sense of community, and it’s really something Athens needs.”

Though COVID-19 cases in Athens have dipped in recent weeks, safety is still a priority. In addition to the procession being an entirely outdoor event, participating organizations are encouraged to social distance as they prepare their floats and will not be throwing candy. But don’t fret—Santa will still conclude the parade by lighting the Christmas tree in front of City Hall, per tradition. As a bonus for parade-goers, parking in the West Washington Street, College Avenue and courthouse decks is free for two hours through Christmas Eve.

The entire Leisure Services Department will be very busy with various roles come parade night.

“We have our staff lining up floats. We have staff working the sound system. We have just so much activity going on. It’s just really great for our department’s staff to all be out there again working together,” Padgett said. “We’re really glad that the [COVID-19 case] numbers are at the point that we can have this event, and we just look forward to people having a great time.”

In preparation for the parade, the Washington Street and College Avenue intersection will close to traffic at 2 p.m., Hancock Street along the assembly area will close at 3 p.m., and the rest of the route, including Pulaski, Lumpkin and Thomas Streets, will close at 6:30 p.m. 

Athens is in no shortage of festive activities to supplement the parade. The State Botanical Garden of Georgia is opening its inaugural holiday lights show on Dec. 1, along with a holiday market. The half-mile trail will be open each evening through Jan. 9. Tickets are $15, with children age 3 and under free, and are available at

In addition, the Lyndon House Arts Center is hosting holiday markets on Saturdays throughout December, and the Athens Welcome Center is hosting a holiday wreath workshop on Dec. 2 with The Petal Exchange. The Classic Center opened for ice skating on Nov. 26, and Santa will stop by for breakfast and to collect toy orders on Dec. 4.