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 song goes, there are parades varied enough for everyone to love. In Connecticut they range from the proudly offbeat to the quaint and dignified.
Essex has its Groundhog Day procession led by a 10-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 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. Connecticut is home to two superlative events representing the antipodes of parade ambiance. The annual July Fourth 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 one of the last remaining in the U.S.
The Willimantic event began in 1986 when no marching band could be found for Windham's Memorial Day Parade. So 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 firetrucks, service groups, school groups and politicians marching, the fun-loving spirit of the community may be evidenced by synchronized dancing with grocery carts, a group prancing in homemade fish costumes 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 announcement of Japan's World War II surrender on Aug. 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 Fife & 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 more than 25 vessels burning in the harbor of this Connecticut River shipbuilding 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, risque outfits, colorful rollerbladers, 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."
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. Having been both a spectator and a marcher, it's hard to say which is more fun.
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 important, they bring smiles to faces of all ages and walks of life.
David K. Leff's most recent nonfiction book is "Hidden in Plain Sight: A Deep Traveler Explores Connecticut." He can be reached at http://www.davidkleff.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun