I receive a morning update from the BBC each day. Recently one of the headlines told of massive parades taking place in Johannesburg South Africa in honor of the Zulu Queen who had died. Members of the Zulu nation crowded the streets wearing traditional clothing and chanting songs. Such methods of remembrance and honor have long been a staple of history.
During the Middle Ages parades were often held on religious holidays. Villagers and townspeople created elaborate floats decked out with icons and flowers. When there was a river nearby such decorations were placed on boats thereby creating a new meaning for the word “float.” When there was no waterway the people simply carried the creations on their shoulders. Cheering crowds lined the streets where such festivities became annual attractions.
Over time the idea of using parades and floats to celebrate some occasion became more secular even in the case of the most famous of these traditions, Mardis Gras and St. Patrick’s Day. Now we see parades with marching bands, performers, and of course a variety of floats to commemorate even gridiron challenges like the Rose Bowl. During the year if we are not constrained by a pandemic there may be parades for Dr. Martin Luther King and Thanksgiving. Some towns have Christmas and Fourth of July parades. There are even parades to honor victorious athletic teams or heroes like astronauts. Gay pride parades have become a staple all over the world and wherever there are Asian populations Chinese New Year parades are featured. Invariably a float or two shows up as part of the entertainment for each special tribute.
I’m a sucker for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I suppose I’ve been watching it for as long as it has aired on television which must be a rather large number of years. I enjoy seeing the floats, especially the ones that come back year after year. Of course nothing tops the grand finale which features Santa Claus officially kicking off the Christmas season. I get goosebumps every time I see him with his reindeer. You’d think I was a little kid if you saw my giddy grin.
A few years ago I experienced my very first Mardi Gras parade in the French Quarter. The one I viewed is known as a rather political and raunchy swipe at current officeholders and issues. It certainly lived up to its name and I died laughing at the sarcasm represented on each float. I took a number of photos but most of them were too daring to actually post on my Facebook wall. Later I attended a Mardis Gras parade in Galveston that was more family oriented. We were guests of friends who had rented a house on the parade route so we enjoyed the festivities with lots of good food and drink from the comfort of lawn chairs. It was great fun but I have to admit that the enthusiasm of the local high school bands stole the show from the floats.
Two years ago I got to see a military parade at Buckingham Palace. The heraldry, uniforms, precision marching and music were breathtaking. It is a memory that I will forever hold in my heart. It was a parade without floats but they were not needed at all. The British really know how to put on a show!
One of the most infamous parades of all time took place in Philadelphia during the pandemic of a hundred or so years ago. The event had been planned to raise money for veterans and the mayor of the city did not have the heart to cancel it even though he was warned that it might be a super spreader of the dangerous virus that would eventually kill millions of people worldwide. Thousands of citizens crowded together for the event and not long after the city was in a state of chaos as people became critically ill. Philadelphia became one of the hardest hit locales of death in all of the United States.
This year the only parades have been remote. Macy’s managed to televise a pared down version of its annual Thanksgiving Day celebration. It actually turned out to be rather nice. Some of the entertainers were missing but I never cared much about their performances anyway. The main man, Santa Claus, showed up as usual so I was satisfied and quite happy. It felt as though somehow we were all going to make it through this difficult time.
I saw my all time favorite parade in Estes Park, Colorado. We had traveled there the day after Thanksgiving to attend the wedding of one of my cousins the following day. When we learned that the town was going to have a Christmas parade we decided to stick around to watch. As the chilly afternoon turned into night the temperature took a frigid dive. Before long we were shivering under countless layers of clothing and blankets but our sacrifice of comfort paid off because the parade was incredibly delightful. Everything about it was homespun and simple but so heartfelt. It seemed as though every possible group in the town had created a float of some kind. There were local bands and even the residents of a nursing home sat on rocking chairs in the back of a pickup truck and waved to the crowd. I felt the Christmas spirit more than I ever have and I entered that season feeling quite joyful.
It never ceases to amaze me how we humans find ways to celebrate people, events, life. Our creativity is boundless as is the optimism that prompts such things. Parades and floats are so human. They take place all over the world in every culture. They seem to be a natural part of who we are. Communal activities are part of our DNA. Using our creativity to enhance such events is a universal instinct. We don’t just work and eat and sleep. We make our lives a party. Life is a parade.