The annual Christmas parade and Memorial Tree lighting will be the Smyrna-Clayton area's first post-Thanksgiving nod to Christmas. There are few changes to this year's events but economic hardships have taken its toll on the parade awards.

The Smyrna/Clayton July 4th Association will shed some of its patriotic flair in favor of holiday cheer next weekend when the annual Christmas parade rolls through Clayton. Its counterpart, the Memorial Tree lighting ceremony will follow immediately afterwards.

Much of the strolling exhibition will be the same as always. With a week of planning left, Association President and Mayor Joanne Masten said that close to 25 entrants were officially signed up.

"We always get a few at the last minute, though, as the holiday spirit starts to take over in people and they realize they want to participate," she said.

So far, spectators can expect to see some familiar crowd pleasers like the Smyrna High School Band, local Girl Scouts, the Smyrna Fire Company and the Clayton Fire Company, floats made by local church groups and horse riders.

There is a one newcomer so far: Blue Hen Traditions Auto Club. According to the group's website and Facebook page, BHTAC is a non-profit organization with 25 active members and a growing legion of trucks and cars. The group's mission is to help children with medical and life-changing needs by raising funds for them. The club also participates in auto shows and parades, winning first place in the "auto" and "float" categories in a Harrington parade as well as first place in the "loudest" and "most redneck truck" categories in the Redneck Truck Show.

"We're excited to see the fancied up cars and trucks that Blue Hen is supposed to bring for the parade," Masten said.

Blue Hen shouldn't expect to win any awards at this year's parade in Clayton, though. Normally, awards are given out for parade participants but this year the organization has to cut back.

"The cost of fireworks has gone up and we have to conserve our funds where we can," Masten explained apologetically. "We would love to send everyone home with one of the nice trophies that are normally given out but times are tight. It costs $16,000 for a 45-minute fireworks show and we have to raise all of that money ourselves. Maybe next year we'll be able to pick that [trophy] tradition back up."

She added that she hopes that people's sense of community involvement will propel them to still sign up, though, saying that so many people look forward to it every year.

One person who has always participated and still plans to this year is Santa Claus. Keen on tradition, Ol' St. Nick brings up the rear of the parade, marking its end with lots of jolly "ho, ho, ho's" called out from his horse-drawn carriage.

"I have it on good authority that he'll be there," Masten said, not wanting to elaborate. "Most people know what I mean."

The Memorial Tree Lighting will follow the parade at 6 p.m. on Sunday at the Clayton Firehouse. For the organizers, it is one of the best—though solemn—aspects of the night because local residents purchase bulbs to honor or remember loved ones.

"For myself, the holidays are when the memories of my parents, my sister and all my loved ones burns really brightly," Masten said. "So, the tree is an opportunity to do something to remember and honor them. I treasure that opportunity and I hope that's how everyone feels."

She added that 400 to 500 bulbs are bought each year and that the names are read aloud, one-by-one after an invocation and benediction by First Presbyterian Church Reverend John Riley.

"It's not just about remembrance," she said. "You can also recognize someone, be it a member of the armed forces who is fighting for our freedom oversees or a new child or grandchild."

The names will be read by four organization members: Masten, Association Co-Director Bob Merrill, Treasurer Diane Price and Co-Director Bruce Ennis.

"It's an honor to read the names," Price said of her involvement. "It makes me feel like I'm a part of someone's family because you can tell when you read someone's name, even if you don't know them. They perk up. They're like, 'whoa—that's my loved one.'"

To purchase a bulb, call Masten at (302) 653-6235; Merrill at (302) 653-6809 or Ennis at (302) 653-7566. Bulb orders are due by Sunday and are $5 for a single bulb or $10 for three bulbs.

Despite the somber reading, there are moments of levity during the memorial roll call as several groups entertain the crowd with a bit of holiday music, including Sunnyside Elementary students who will be performing for the second year in a row.

"Those kids love to get up in front of a large crowd and perform," Masten said, recalling last year's show. "They were all beaming for joy right alongside their choir director Kristen Hughes. You couldn't get them to stop smiling. It was so sweet."