The 81st annual Hollywood Christmas Parade began Sunday night November 26, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. for a 3.2-mile route down Hollywood Boulevard, Vine Street and
The 81st annual Hollywood Christmas Parade began Sunday night November 26, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. for a 3.2-mile route down Hollywood Boulevard, Vine Street and back along Sunset Boulevard. Jim, Jonah (9), Patricia, and Jordan (7) were out from Tennessee to see their son and brother Justin play with the Science Hill High School Marching Band. (Dean Musgrove/ Staff Photographer)

Gallery: Hollywood Christmas Parade With Stars, Cars, Bands And Balloons

In Los Angeles, the Christmas season begins when a star appears riding in a vintage car down Hollywood and Sunset boulevards at the end of Thanksgiving weekend.

That star happened to be Joe Mantegna of television's "Criminal Minds" fame, who served as Grand Marshal Sunday to help kick off the Hollywood Christmas Parade.

"It's such a great tradition in Hollywood," Mantegna said. "I was humbled to be asked to do this."

Tinseltown's streets sparkled with glittered asphalt, bright lights and decorations as tens of thousands of spectators sat or stood five people deep along three miles of the world's most famous boulevards.

The smell of sizzling, bacon wrapped hot dogs and onions from street vendors filled the air as children and adults craned their necks to catch a glimpse of celebrities. They bobbed their heads to jaunty Christmas tunes performed by award-winning marching bands, applauded equestrian units and, of course, cheered loudly for the biggest star of them all - Santa Claus.

"It's such a once-in-a-lifetime event for me," said Omar von Muller, the trainer of Uggie, the Jack Russell terrier famous for his role in "The Artist." Uggie, who placed his paws in cement at Grauman's Chinese Theatre earlier this summer, is retired now, but he rolled, begged, and played dead a few times on the red carpet for television crews before the start of the parade.

"Who would think that this dog would take me to all these events," a beaming Von Muller said.

The parade has been a holiday tradition since 1928. It was postponed for three years during World War II, but resumed again in 1945. This year's parade flowed for 3.

The 81st annual Hollywood Christmas Parade began Sunday night November 26, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. for a 3.2-mile route down Hollywood Boulevard, Vine Street and
The 81st annual Hollywood Christmas Parade began Sunday night November 26, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. for a 3.2-mile route down Hollywood Boulevard, Vine Street and back along Sunset Boulevard. Bugs Bunny takes a ride down Hollywood Blvd. (Dean Musgrove/ Staff Photographer)
2 miles down Hollywood Boulevard toward Vine Street, and onto Sunset Boulevard.

More than 5,000 people were expected to participate in this year's event, which included a pre-show featuring acts by Cirque du Soleil. In the parade were 21 marching bands from all over the nation, eight equestrian units, six floats, 14 giant cartoon character balloons, and 52 novelty acts and cars, including the "Back to the Future" DeLorean, and the Batmobile from 1966.

Daytime soap stars from "Days of Our Lives," "The Bold and the Beautiful" and "General Hospital" also came out to greet the crowds. Kate Linder, who plays Esther Valentine on "The Young and the Restless," said this holiday season people should reach out more, and think of those on the East Coast who suffered through Hurricane Sandy. Many people don't know that toys collected for the needy were destroyed.

"We need to try to help them," she said.

"The Incredible Hulk Star" Lou Ferrigno wore a bright green sweater and said he has participated in the parade for 15 years.

His favorite part is "the excitement, the look on the people's faces is great," he said.

But he, too, said his sister's home was affected by Hurricane Sandy and he hoped this holiday season more people would reach out to each other.

"The election season is over and we all need to be more positive now," he said. "We're all human beings and we all need a hand."

The parade was once again hosted by actor Erik Estrada and Laura McKenzie, and will air Dec. 10 on the Hallmark Channel and later be syndicated across the globe.

"I love it here," Estrada said enthusiastically. "It's my fourth time doing this."

Produced by Hollywood's Santa Parade LLC and presented by the city and Associated Television International, the parade helps raise awareness for the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, which will receive free public service announcements on the Hallmark Channel. Toys for Tots began 65 years ago when a U.S. Marine came up with the idea to collect toys for needy children in Los Angeles. Since then, there are more than 700 drop-off points across the nation.

More than 16 million toys were collected last year and handed out to 7.2 children, said Retired Lt. Gen.

The 81st annual Hollywood Christmas Parade began Sunday night November 26, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. for a 3.2-mile route down Hollywood Boulevard, Vine Street and
The 81st annual Hollywood Christmas Parade began Sunday night November 26, 2012 at 6:30 p.m. for a 3.2-mile route down Hollywood Boulevard, Vine Street and back along Sunset Boulevard. A vehicle from Star Wars moves along Hollywood Blvd. (Dean Musgrove/ Staff Photographer)
 Pete Osman, president and CEO of the Marine Toys for Tots Foundation.

"Toys for Tots and the Hollywood Christmas Parade go hand and hand perfectly," Osman said. "We're working on raising more."

Lured by the unseasonably warm Thanksgiving weekend weather, or just tradition, many parade-goers said the event marks a perfect ending to Thanksgiving and beginning of the Christmas season.

"It's not quite the Macy's parade, but it's a big deal in L.A.," said Lake Balboa resident Amanda Shipman, who carried her 2-year-old son Xavier, who was dressed in a Superman suit.

Lisa Dearing of Sherman Oaks brought her three children to the parade. Her two daughters, Sharaya, 19, and Alisha, 17, and son Ethan, 14, came to visit her from Washington state for the Thanksgiving weekend. It was the first time the family had attended the event.

"Hollywood inspires me because I've always wanted to come here," said Ethan, who hoped to spot Johnny Depp or Jessica Alba while visiting the area. He said he wants to become a comedian one day.

"There's not anyone in particular we want to see, but it's just the experience of it all," Lisa Dearing said.

Alfred Garcia and his family were visiting Hollywood Boulevard to eat a local seafood buffet. They didn't realize they had come to the area on the same night as the Hollywood Christmas Parade. So they bought Santa hats and blankets and, like the old saying goes "When in Rome, do as the Romans," they stood along the street for hours, to take it all in.

"It's kind of feeling like Christmas already," Garcia said. "There's a feeling in the air. It feels like New York."