24th annual Winter Holiday Stroll: From small and cozy to huge and friendly

Staff file photo A throng of visitors to the 2011 Winter Holiday Stroll fill Railroad Square and the Main Street Bridge area after arriving for the official tree lighting ceremony. That year's crowd was estimated at more than 30,000.

Just weeks after his arrival, City Hall’s newest hire had an idea. It was the fall of 1994, and the holidays, as they are wont to do, were creeping ever closer at breakneck speed.

The new guy’s idea required a Santa Claus. A good Santa Claus. The search was on.

His lucky day turned out to be the day he spotted a particular poster displayed downtown. It announced the annual Breakfast with Santa, a Nashua Lions Club initiative that delighted oodles of kids every year.

The new guy wasted no time. He called the number he found for the Lions Club and told the guy who answered of his idea.

“Hey, how do I get ahold of this Santa, the one doing the Lions Club breakfast?” he asked.

“Well, you’re talking to him,” said the man, who just happened to be longtime Lions Club member Ed Lecius, an up-and-coming leader at the organization’s state, regional and national levels – and one of the most sought-after Santas in the area.

Lecius assurred the new guy – Alan S. Manoian, at the time a newly-hired part-time downtown development specialist – that Santa would in fact be coming to (down) town, and would be delighted to do his part to help bring Manoian’s idea to life.

“This was one of his first big things,” Lecius told me the other day, recalling Manoian’s Nashua debut and the long string of initiatives for which he would become widely known.

“Alan pulled (the first stroll) together in three, four weeks. A few thousand people came and it grew from there,” Lecius added.

It sure did.

Having learned through studying and getting involved hands-on how important downtown-centered activities are for the social and economic health of cities and towns, Manoian sized up Nashua’s downtown and pitched his stroll idea almost immediately.

As effusive and persuasive as he is passionate and well-researched, Manoian drew local business owners, community leaders and office-holders on board one after the other, painting for them a picture of a festive, brightly lit downtown exuding all kinds of music, food and – wink, wink – plenty of opportunities for folks to invest their Christmas Clubs and holiday bonuses into their local businesses.

To say Manoian was estatic over the stroll’s 1994 debut is probably an understatement. In speaking with then-Telegraph correspondent for a story previewing the second stroll in 1995, he drew a comparison to a rather well-known, long established “stroll.”

“Really, it was folks gathering together and parading up Main Street in true community spirit, a la New Orleans, all the way to the Hunt Building … ,” Manoian said.

And with no nudity, excessive drinking, fights or arrests. Take that, New Orleans.

Lecius, meanwhile, remembers donning the bright red suit, affixing the obligatory accessories and clambering aboard then-Fire Commissioner Mark Piekarski’s antique fire engine to lead candle-toting strollers up Main Street to Railroad Square.

There, folks gathered as best they could in front of the Hunt Building, where someone with a microphone counted down to the flip of the switch that officially illuminated the tree.

From there, strollers were on their own, choosing to visit one or more of the participating venues. Looking back, it seemed like there were a lot of them, but they were few compared to today.

With no particular assignment after the tree-lighting, Santa simply “hung around … talking to kids” outside the Hunt, Lecius recalled.

Then, a brillant idea: Why not let Santa come inside? Perhaps set him up with an antique “throne,” maybe even ask Mrs. Claus if she’d like to join him?

“It was great to get inside,” Lecius recalled. At some point, a pair of guards joined Santa and the Missus.

“Tim Glenday and Ken Gidge borrowed a couple of Beefeater uniforms, they became our guards,” he said. “We’d be there right up to the end of the stroll.”

That end came early the first year, when everything was packed in between 5:30-7:30 p.m. A couple of years later it stretched to 9 p.m., then organizers adopted the present schedule: The stroll itself steps off at 5 p.m. from City Hall (participants should gather at City Hall at 4:45 p.m.), and the final acts wrap up between 9:45-10 p.m.

As for Lecius, he returned as the stroll’s Santa for 20 years, riding aboard Piekarski’s antique engine for the first 18 then switching the next two years to antique trucks owned by Bellavance Beverage and the former Law Warehouses company.

Do Santas, I wondered, face mandatory retirement, like judges do? No, but Lecius said he felt it was time to give others a shot.

“Twenty years … I felt it was a good run,” he said. “My grandkids were getting older … I didn’t want to risk it,” he added. Parents and grandparents know what he means.

“I really enjoyed it. You know, I often wonder how many Christmas cards I’ve been on over the years,” Lecius said, referring to the myriad photo-ops that are a major part of Santa’s job.

The youngest visitor he remembers cradling in his lap was three weeks old. The eldest? “No idea,” he said with a laugh.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Sundays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-1256, dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com or@Telegraph_DeanS.