Quintessential America

Stepping in Time

America’s parades make our souls sing





We love marching, waving flags, and loud public parties as the sun splashes down on us. It’s in our bones and our souls. We adore parades. You know that, of course.

But Americans did not invent parades, though we have perfected the art form so precisely that we concoct public ceremonies just to have an excuse for one.

Weddings are preceded by a ceremonial parade down the aisle. Wars end with parades and often begin with them. We’ve been doing this ever since there have been people.

Proof? Step into our Wayback Time Machine to the very afternoon recorded history began. Just guessing, but it might have been July 4, 20,000 B.C.

We don’t know the cast’s names, of course, because it was before history; so written words hadn’t been invented. Nothing had been invented, except for hurling large rocks to kill wildlife. But they were real people who left us a present.

These events take place in what will become Spain. Two hunters are coming home to the camp with Steppe Bison carcasses. Lunch will be served shortly.

When they arrive, their Paleozoic tribe—it didn’t have a name either—was in high spirits and festive mood because everyone was getting lunch. The homecoming hunters launched into an impromptu march and dance around the fire. They would have sung and hooted, though singing and hooting hadn’t been invented. Mostly just loud, happy grunts.

It was the first parade in recorded history.

We know it was a parade because the very day of their post-hunt celebration, an unknown tribal scribe recorded the Paleolithic event on walls at the Cave of Altamira in Cantabria, Spain. The 1,000-foot-long Upper Paleolithic cave features polychrome rock paintings of wild mammals and humans. The cave startled the scientific world in 1880 because it was the first record of organized social life. It records a parade. Thus, humans invented both recorded history and the parade on roughly the same day.

As events that day showed, we’re spirited, intuitive showboats. It’s one of humanity’s needs to dazzle each other with loud, splashy marching.

We march. Apparently we must. And we’ve been repeating and enhancing the skill ever since. In fact, the story of humanity is intertwined with parades.

In the century that preceded the turn of history’s clock from B.C. to A.D., Rome put on the best parades because the return of conquering armies was a celebration. Romans never missed a chance to party.

Roman Legions dressed in elegant and uniform tunics, body armor, festooned helmets, and toted spectacular banners. They mastered massed formations as they strode into Rome after subduing the known universe.

Rome also invented the marching military band, and there’s little evidence we’ve improved on their showbiz sensibility. In fact, the maneuvering of Roman Legions was not only party, but also policy. Conquered capitals cowered when Romans pivoted their armies in public. The world had never seen that.

Parades in every civilization ratified celebration, solidarity, and occasionally a desire to kill other people. But mostly happiness. The Olympics always include a massed parade of athletic heroes and heroines.

Parades have been linked permanently to the homecoming of victorious armies, heroes, and to days honoring the memories of those armies, especially fallen heroes who didn’t come back. The riderless stallion in John Kennedy’s funeral procession still marks the saddest parade in American history.

Europe often stages political parades, but they been much more subdued and mannerly since Adolf Hitler left the stage. Europeans don’t consciously imitate old Nazi pomp these days, because it makes both American and Russians fidgety. Russians parade their vast armament in May. The North Koreans seem to do that every day.

But no nation stages better, happier parades than America, and we’ve been doing that since before there was a country. The first true American parade was not American at all. Irish soldiers serving in the British army in the American Colonies invented the St. Patrick’s Day Parade on March 17, 1762. They marched in New York, and have ever since.

American suffragists marched 8,000 strong to Washington in 1913 with 25 floats and nine bands with famed labor lawyer Inez Milholland all in white and sitting atop a white horse. They came to tell Woodrow Wilson they’d get the vote, or else. Hundreds were roughed up. But they won.

Veterans of World War I marched the same way to Washington to demand the pensions they were promised. They won.

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David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.

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Quintessential America is a recurring series of stories reflecting American values and community achievement. Some will be big stories. Some will be small. They’ll all be about Americans doing what we do best—sharing, helping, living.