The Pageant - past and present

At Play

The Christmas Pageant has been kicking off the busy calendar of events for the city, since it began way back in 1933.

With crowds swelling to an average of 320,000 over the years, the Christmas Pageant has become an ingrained tradition for so many families. Ask any regular pageant attendee and they have no-doubt nailed a fool-proof routine for securing that perfect vantage point.

The annual ritual

It might have looked a little something like this...The nominated ‘seat-warmer’ arrives at the crack of dawn, arriving bleary-eyed and packed like a mule. They quickly lay out the picnic rug to reserve just over a metre square for the rest of the family, and if they’re really organised, maybe a couple of fold-out chairs. By the time they’ve finished the crossword from the Advertiser, a thermos of Nescafe and a few Yo Yo biscuits, the rest of the family start to join them, squeezing past some of the ‘intruders’ who have wormed their way onto the edge of the rug. 

The route slowly becomes lined with thousands and thousands of excited children, wearing Santa hats and reindeer antlers, busily scribbling away doing chalk art on the streets and munching away on their pre-packed snacks. Eventually, everyone becomes firm friends and settles into their allocated spot by the edge of the road.

Among a sea of bright colours and chalk dust the first of the pageant clowns arrive. They ‘sweep’ and usher the children back safely behind the blue ‘honour’ line. And then it begins, the sweet sound of music being piped from the pageant floats accompanying the deafening squeals of delight. The Christmas Pageant has begun…

Train float at the christmas pageant

A break in tradition

For the first time in history, there was no need for a 'seat-warmer' at the 2020 Christmas Pageant as it found a temporary COVID-safe home at the Adelaide Oval. This year is no different, with the 2021 National Pharmacies Christmas Pageant filling Adelaide with festive cheer from the Adelaide Oval again. The 35,000 strong crowd will fill the Adelaide Oval while everyone at home can enjoy watching it live on Channel Nine. 

“The legacy of the Pageant hasn’t changed. It is about celebrating the joy of family, of community and welcoming Father Christmas to Adelaide." - Brian Gilbertson, Event Manager and Creative Director for the National Pharmacies Christmas Pageant.

Pageant history

It was Sir Edward Hayward, Chairman of the former department store John Martin & Co (John Martin’s), who first established the Christmas Pageant in Adelaide in 1933 and, apart from a hiatus through World War II, it’s been an annual city event ever since.

As well as wanting to spread some much-needed joy throughout the local community in the wake of the Depression, Hayward created the event to symbolise the start of Christmas activity in the city by welcoming Father Christmas to the John Martin’s ‘Magic Cave’ [ii].

It was certainly a big debut for the Christmas Pageant, with Hayward hiring a Tiger Moth biplane [i] to fly low across Adelaide to promote the Pageant over a loudspeaker and some 200,000 people turning out to see the colourful spectacle of floats, clowns, marching bands and more.

1969 father christmas float john martins christmas pageant city archives 3554 026 072
photo-icon City Archives - 3554.026.072

Father Christmas float at the 1969 John Martins Christmas Pageant.

1969 pageant queen float john martins christmas pageant city archives 3554 026 073
photo-icon City Archives - 3554.026.073

Pageant Queen float at the 1969 John Martin's Christmas Pageant.

The 'Magic Cave'

The ‘Magic Cave’ itself appeared even before the first Pageant was held – opening its doors in 1896 in the basement of John Martin’s.

Initially, it was a place where people could find some cool relief from the warm December days. Unfortunately, when the store burnt down in 1901, locals had to wait until 1905 before a new ‘Magic Cave’ was opened. The wait was worth it though, with the second ‘Magic Cave’ a far more fantastical affair with a series of caves and grottos, waterfalls and fishponds [iii].

In 1998, John Martin’s Rundle Mall store closed and the ‘Magic Cave’ was moved to David Jones. It lasted here for 20 years before eventually the doors were closed on the tradition at the end of the festive season in 2018.

Traditions old and new

As always, the official start of the Pageant will be marked by the blowing of Sir Edward Hayward’s legendary gold whistle and Nipper and Nimble will take their positions in the float line-up.

Dapple-grey rocking horse Nimble first made an appearance at the ‘Magic Cave’ in 1914 and featured in the very first Pageant in 1933. Chestnut-coloured Nipper came onboard in 1926 and has been Nimble’s stablemate ever since. [iii]

1965 nimble float john martins christmas pageant city archives 3554 026 061
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the Nimble float at the 1965 John Martin's Christmas Pageant.

The young and the old create colourful chalk drawings on the streets of the city as they await the Pageant kick off – a tradition that, according to one newspaper article, started in the late 1980s [iv].

Kidschalk drawings clowns christmas pageant
Father christmas at the christmas pageant in adelaide

The City of Adelaide is a proud supporter of the 2021 National Pharmacies Christmas Pageant.

Visit our Christmas webpage to discover all the wonderful events happening in Adelaide throughout the festive season.

[ii] The legendary Magic Cave and Christmas Pageant by Lee Lennan Peacock Publication 2007