The Pageant - past and present

At Play

Posted on 30 Oct 2019

The weeks leading up to Christmas Day in Adelaide are filled with a magical collection of free community events that wrap the city in the spirit of peace, joy and goodwill. 

For many locals and their families, the festive season wouldn’t be the same without these special occasions – especially one that’s been bringing smiles to faces young and old for 87 years in 2019.

We all love a parade!

Since the very first floats (about eight in all, plus four bands [i]) made their way through the city’s heart on Saturday 18 November 1933 [ii], the Christmas Pageant has marked the traditional start to Adelaide’s festive season – and this year is no exception.

The 2019 National Pharmacies Christmas Pageant will fill Adelaide with festive cheer on Saturday 9 November, attracting more than 320,000 people to the city for what is now the largest public parade in the southern hemisphere.

Train float at the 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.

If you'd like to get a little nostalgic, watch this video where Brian Gilbertson, Pageant Manager & Creative Director since 2002, shares memories and insights into this iconic Adelaide event. 

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’ [iii].

It was certainly a big debut for the Christmas Pageant, with Hayward hiring a Tiger Moth biplane [ii] 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
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Father Christmas float at the 1969 John Martins Christmas Pageant.

1969 pageant queen float john martins christmas pageant city archives 3554 026 073
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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 [iv].

In 1998, John Martin’s Rundle Mall store closed and the ‘Magic Cave’ was moved to its present home at David Jones. 

Traditions old and new

While the 2019 National Pharmacies Christmas Pageant will see the return of many long-held traditions, it will also herald a few new beginnings.

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 are again welcome to 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 [v].

Kidschalk drawings clowns christmas pageant

A new custom debuting at the 2019 National Pharmacies Christmas Pageant is the final destination for Father Christmas at the close of the parade.

With a new pageant route in play (it’s 80 metres longer than last year – so more room for more people to feast their eyes on the floats [vii]), Father Christmas will set off from South Terrace and end his arrival into the city, not at the ‘Magic Cave’ (as he has for the last 86 years), but at a wondrous and history-laden new location – the iconic Adelaide Town Hall.

Father christmas at the christmas pageant in adelaide

Once Father Christmas has arrived at Town Hall and as his float leaves the area, he’ll make his way up to the famous balcony overlooking King William Street and greet the crowds below before delivering his Christmas message. One thinks (hopes!) the screams for Father Christmas might be a little less deafening than the ones for The Beatles when they graced this famous balcony in 1964, but who knows? Everyone is so much looking forward to return of Father Christmas to South Australia!

For all the details about the 2019 National Pharmacies Christmas Pageant, including handy hints, the route map, a float list, parking tips and more, visit the event’s website.

The City of Adelaide is a proud supporter of the 2019 National Pharmacies Christmas Pageant.

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

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

Article by

Skye Murtagh

Skye Murtagh

Skye is Adelaide Living's main driving force. She is passionate about sharing stories from all walks of life. When she's not busy weaving beautiful words together, she's singing a line or two from her favourite song.