With Independence Day just behind us and Labor Day not far away, this is the heart of parade season. And not only does everyone love a parade, as the old cliché goes, there are parades varied enough for
everyone to love. Though small, my home state of Connecticut is big on parades that range from the proudly offbeat to the quaint and dignified. Essex has its Groundhog Day procession led by a ten foot tall critter in costume and residents banging pots, while Canton’s old fashioned Memorial Day event featuring veterans, the high school band, antique cars, Scouts, sports teams, and fire trucks has changed little in generations.
Parades can be one-of-a-kind events like that held in Hartford this April to honor the UConn Women’s Basketball team’s 2013 NCAA championship, or last year’s march marking the Town of Haddam’s 350th anniversary. Others are annual celebrations such as Meriden’s Daffodil and Winsted’s Laurel Festival parades.
Parades are typically expressions of civic exuberance or acts of remembrance, sometimes both. You can take the measure of a place by its marches. Connecticut is home to two superlative events representing the antipodes of parade ambiance. The annual July 4th Boom Box Parade in Willimantic is touted as the largest such happening in the world, while Moosup’s V-J Day parade commemorating victory over Japan in World War II is almost the last of its kind.
While honoring our country’s founding, the Willimantic event is also a species of civic play. In 1986 no marching band could be found for Windham’s Memorial Day Parade so a few weeks later the boom box idea was born with radio station WILI broadcasting marching music while parade participants and viewers loudly played their radios. Unlike other parades, the music is continuous and wherever you stand along the route nearby receivers make it clear when the parade has stepped off. While there are the usual fire trucks, service groups, school groups, and politicians marching, the fun loving spirit of the community may be evidenced by entertainments such as synchronized dancing with grocery carts, a group prancing in homemade fish costumes, children in martial arts outfits demonstrating their skill, or a medieval themed float sponsored by a local coffee shop where the dragon-like Starbucks monster is slain with a sword.
Although Moosup’s V-J Day parade is timed to commemorate the initial announcement of Japan’s World War II surrender on August 14, 1945, the event is now a more general celebration of patriotism. It’s a lively line of march with many veterans in orderly rows, beauty queens in open vintage cars tossing candy, firefighters in brass buttoned blue coats, the inspiriting sound of bagpipers, and many bands including the renowned Chester Drum Corps and Moodus Drum and Fife Corps. Small American flags are handed to children.
Moosup’s parade partakes in a long tradition celebrating military victories, but Essex’s Burning of the Ships Parade, sometimes dubbed “Loser’s Day,” may be unique in commemorating a defeat. Among the few American towns ever attacked by a foreign power, a British raid on April 8, 1814 left over 25 vessels burning in the harbor of this one time Connecticut River ship building community.
Attracting a wider array of people than most events, parades are occasions of community cohesion and there are few that celebrate diversity as well as Hartford’s Hooker Day Parade in October which both trumpets history and previews Halloween. Named for Hartford’s founder, Thomas Hooker, there are characters in colonial garb and marchers behind neighborhood banners. But it also has the air of a post apocalyptic renaissance fair with bird dancers, risqué outfits, colorful roller bladers, dragon bikes, feather dancers, and costumed animals. It harks back a century and more to the grotesque outfits featured in once common “parades of horribles” that began in the mid 1800s as a means of poking fun at the sometimes formal and stuffy Independence Day processions of that era.
For mirth there is nothing like New Haven’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade which is a species of linear party full of cheerful revelry with flag waving and sometimes costumed onlookers, often with a drink in hand. Having been both a spectator and a marcher with a troop of Civil War reenactors, it’s hard to say which is more fun. Marching provides an entirely novel perspective as I’ve learned in 25 years of walking in a column with pumpers and ambulances as a volunteer firefighter in my town’s Memorial Day parade. Participants experience a parade turned inside out, walking as if through a canal of cheering, smiling, but stationary people who are as much on display as those moving down the street. I’ve learned that while they are mutually dependent, the success of a parade depends more on the watchers than the watched.
Among the most ancient of entertainments, parades nevertheless remain popular. A mixture of circus and ceremony, they are a measure of community vibrancy, a storehouse of collective memory, and a reservoir of social capital. Most importantly, they bring smiles to faces of all ages and walks of life.
Adapted from the Hartford Courant, 7-11-13