Unicyclists with antlers, The Grinch on a John Deere tractor and flaming baton twirlers entertained bundled-up families who braved freezing temperatures to celebrate the beginning holiday season.

Friday evening residents gathered downtown to sip hot cocoa and enjoy the Harrisonburg Holiday Parade.

Every year, the floats are decorated differently to accommodate the year's theme. This year's parade was themed "Sounds of the Season."

"These songs are something everyone knows and grew up with," said Lisa Heatwole, a Harrisonburg Girl Scout troop leader.

Heatwole, along with co-leader Stephanie Forbes, helped the girls of Troop 963 make hats, scarves and bracelets with bells. The decorated articles matched the girls' song of the season, "Jingle Bells," which they performed while marching down the parade.

Most floats take part in a competition based on how well it relates to the theme.

"They win a plaque and bragging rights," said Lynn Turner, special events coordinator for Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation.

Turner booked 125 floats and organized the entire parade down to the procession order with the help of interns.

"It's been a lot of hard work, but I'm really just excited to see how it all pays off," said Katie Cornett, a senior kinesiology major and one of Turner's interns.

The parade also exercised an opportunity to advertise local businesses.

Jane Braithwaite of Braithwaite Studios, a carved glass artwork studio in Dayton, Va., has attended the parade for years, but finally entered this year with a float displaying original carved glass artwork and Christmas lights.

"Supporting local business in this holiday season is crucial," Braithwaite said. "If you save a portion of your gift giving for a local mom and pop community, you keep your community strong."

In hard economic times, smaller companies say they need a financial boost to get them through the year, to keep from getting run out by national corporate chains.

Several Harrisonburg churches also took part in the competition by making floats of more religious tunes.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints added their own history to the traditional Christmas song "We Three Kings." The first Latter-day Saints Church members traveled by pioneer wagon to seek religious freedom and escape abuse from their community. Friday evening, the church had three handcrafted pioneer wagons filled with gifts.

"We just wanted to join in the community celebration," said church member Jana Bennet.

Last year's champions, Shenandoah Cloggers Inc., brought the holiday spirit to downtown Harrisonburg by dancing to seasonal tunes with tap dance-like heel strikes.

"We like the excitement and the kids at the parade," said Cindy Warren, group leader at Shenandoah Cloggers Inc., which took home the award again for Best Dancers/Majorettes.

Even bundled up for warmth, children still jumped at the chance to snag free candy.

"It brings us back to our youth," said Brittni Aurichul, a sophomore interdisciplinary liberal studies major, as she watched kids run from their parents to get some sweets from people in the parade.

The shivering crowd couldn't help but cringe after seeing a flaming baton twirler from Glitterettes in Broadway, Va., wearing only a tank top in the brisk air.

Massanutten River Adventures captured the crowd's attention with a "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer"-themed float. True to Adventure style, Santa's sleigh was a canoe on top of a snowy hill with candy canes for paddles.

Laughter could be seen in the air from breath of spectators as the float passed, stimulated by Grandma's wiggling feet sticking up from the snow pile.

An appearance by Mr. and Mrs. Claus concluded the parade, but the night was far from ending. The couple then joined the rest of the parade-goers to watch a performance from the Marching Royal Dukes and lighting of the Court Square Christmas tree.

"It's almost like Times Square at the end," Turner said. "Everyone always rushes to Court Square to hear the JMU Marching Royal Dukes play."

The Harrisonburg Parks and Recreation Department judged the Holiday Parade winners. Awards for the Business Entry went to Jim's Drive-In Restaurant; for Noncommercial Float, Our Community Place; for Religious/Spiritual, First Church of the Brethren; for Bands, Spotswood High School; for Marching Unit, Girl Scouts Spotswood Service Unit.

Contact Kelsey Peters at peterske@dukes.jmu.edu.