CAIRO — Christmas arrived in Cairo Thursday night.

The winter holiday was celebrated with floats, bands and a special appearance by Santa Claus himself during the annual Cairo Christmas Parade.

Thomas Jones, who rode in the parade as Cairo High School’s homecoming king, said the event was a positive experience.

“I thought it was an amazing event for the community because it brought everybody together for the holiday spirit,” said Jones, 17.

Celeste Tyler, main street director for the City of Cairo, estimated the thousands of attendees Thursday night constituted the largest Christmas parade the city had ever witnessed.

The 108 entries in the tropical-themed holiday event, hosted by the Cairo-Grady County Chamber of Commerce, marched, danced, drove and rode horseback down Broad Street. 

Trey Gainous, the chamber’s executive director, said the “Christmas in Paradise” theme was chosen to encourage creativity among the parade’s participants.

“We wanted something new and something a little bit different that doesn’t stray too far away from tradition,” Gainous said. “You can get creative because it’s not too specific.”

Gainous said the theme was chosen during the summer around the time destructive volcano eruptions were devastating Hawaii as a tribute to the victims. 

The theme had the added effect of tying in with Hurricane Michael’s impact on nearby Mexico Beach, Fla.

Thomas said he thought the theme was a great idea. 

“I thought it was a great way to tie in both our hometown here and also our community in Mexico Beach,” Thomas said. “A bunch of people in our community do live down there and were affected by the hurricane in both areas.”

Several parade floats referenced the ongoing recovery efforts in Mexico Beach. Shiver Elementary School’s procession included wagonloads of toys intended for children impacted by the hurricane. 

Earl Prince reprised his role as Santa Claus at the conclusion of the parade.

Prince, 52, has portrayed the North Pole resident since 2006. Prince, his father Martin and his grandfather Allie Ben are the only individuals to portray the legendary gift-giver in the parade since 1921. 

According to family legend, the Prince family was chosen by Santa Claus himself to be his representative in Cairo when he can’t be physically present during the busy Christmas season.

“Christmas is an exciting time for all kids,” Prince said after the parade. “Their eyes just light up with wonder and joy. It’s a magical time of year for them.”

The evening presented the opening of the holiday season, but also the end of a special experience for others.

Tatum Puckett, a cheerleader at Cairo High School, said the parade was bittersweet for her.

“This is my senior year, so this is the last time I’m actually going to be able to be in the parade,” said Puckett, 17. “It was kind of sad to be the last time I’ll be walking through it.”

As the festivities wound down, Puckett reflected on the night’s parade. 

“This year was good,” Puckett said. “It seems like it was longer than any other year. I’m glad I got to be in it.”