Even a cold, driving rain and biting wind could not keep people away from Sunday's 55th annual VFW Post 29 Santa Parade.

Although the crowds were about half of what they usually are, according to several spectators who'd lined downtown Merrimack Street, their enthusiasm was evident as this annual spectacle kicked off the holiday season.

Children and adults dressed in rain gear and warm, winter clothing huddled together under overhangs such as at Harbor Place and Pentucket Bank on Merrimack Street. All along the route, which began at the Bradford fire station on South Main Street, dozens of pop-up canopies offered protection from the rain.

About a dozen adults and children gathered under two side-by-side canopies they'd set up in front of the Merrimack Street parking garage.

"We've never missed a year," said Jessica Therrien of Plaistow while gripping the leg of one canopy to prevent it from being swept away by the wind.

Many spectators who lined downtown sidewalks held umbrellas, including Haverhill natives Dan Lynch, Alexis Janackas and their daughter Lila Grace Lynch, 2.

"We've got to see Santa Claus," Dan Lynch said.

Linda and Aaron Drosdek and their daughter Dori, 9, came to the parade to wave to people they know.

"My teacher is marching today," said Dori, a student at Hill View Montessori Public Charter School.

Various marching bands, with members protected by ponchos, performed festive holiday music while various floats brought color and well wishes for a happy holiday season.

Many walkers tossed candy to children, who eagerly caught the treats or plucked them from the pavement.

In a Biblical theme, a float from King of Grace Church in Bradford presented a manger scene, complete with live characters in costume.

Parade organizer Daniel Plourde Sr. said that because of the rain, a number of scheduled participants, including a few large marching bands and smaller musical groups, as well as the Hallamore Clydesdales and Hitch failed to show up.

Most, but not all planned floats participated, while some of the marching groups were reduced in size.

Still, this year's parade managed to put smiles on the faces of young and old.

"It was a bigger parade than it would have been had we postponed it to next week," Plourde said. "More than 50 percent of the musical groups would not have been able to participate and a lot of floats could not have been recreated as many of the trucks and trailers they rely on would be needed for other tasks."

Plourde said that starting next year, the parade will not have a rain date.

"It will either go on as planned or it will be cancelled," he said.

Jennifer Webster drove from Berwick, Maine, with her two children, Brady, 5, and Anabella, 8, to visit family in town and see the parade.

She was with younger brother Leland, 9, of Haverhill, and her fiance, Tyler Fife.

"I heard they were holding the parade today because half of the participants could not make it next week," she said.

Members of the Just Church organization, located above the A1 Deli on Merrimack Street, were handing out candy canes and inviting spectators indoors to watch the parade from above the street.

"Come and join us for hot cocoa and cookies," said Aimee Szumiesz, who was with her pastor, John Howard.

Unlike in past years, very few spectators brought folding chairs. Those that did included Sara Merritt, whose daughter Eliose sat in her lap under the protection of an umbrella.

"Nothing was going to stop us from coming ... She wanted to see Santa," Sara Merritt said while waiting in front of Harbor Place.

Just one hour after the start of the parade, Merritt's daughter and others who came to see the star attraction got to wave to Santa, who arrived in his sleigh that sat on a flat bed trailer from Crescent Farm.

"We're very thankful,'' Plourde said, "for the people who came out to see and enjoy the parade and to cheer.''

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