Any nation, city, village, or religious or ethnic group must articulate its sense of community. Since antiquity, processions, pageants, and parades have been one important way of making communal bonds visible, and children have always played a significant though changing role in these celebrations, in which communities say who they are and where they are going.
Ancient and Medieval Celebrations
In his Laws, Plato states that nothing is of more benefit to the state than the mutual acquaintance of its citizens. As manifested by the frieze around the temple of Parthenon, Athens demonstrated its unity in the procession of the great Panathenaen festival. The Greek word for procession, pompe Å, was taken over by the Romans as pompa, which can still be found in some form in most European languages, as for example in "pomp and circumstance."
Originally the processions were religious. But their form has survived for centuries, easily metamorphosing from religious processions into royal entries, popular festivals, and, since the beginning of the twentieth century, commercial events such as the American parade.
In ancient as well as modern parades the city very often functions as a theatrical setting. The drama begins with the arrival of the parade into this scene along the major thoroughfares. The protagonist is welcomed by people waving with palm leaves, flags, or similar props. The protagonist is followed by long lines of people and "floats" that make the lavishly decorated streets come alive. Along the streets and at the destination of the parade, children stand praising and chanting.
History shows, however, that communities on a smaller scale are also in need of parading their collective memory or their collective longings. If urban parades often reflect the politics of those in power or the aspirations of those out of power, parades in villages and thinly populated areas either express local conditions or serve to establish a feeling of community among people who do not get together on a daily basis.
Parades are characterized by sociability, participation, and sometimes a temporary abolition of the existing order. But they also often teach moral lessons. Integral to all processions are the moral lessons told by the tableaux displayed on the floats. These lessons may be primarily religious, but they may also be military, political, nostalgic, utopian; efforts are made to give these lessons a spectacular shape. In the early Middle Ages, for example, around 800, a meeting between the Pope and the emperor Karl the Great was celebrated by an entry into Rome, where they were received by a complete and concrete enumeration of all the classes of this society–clerics, political rulers, the military, the people, and lastly the schoolchildren. Medieval carnival celebrations, on the other hand, turned the world upside down and sometimes placed children first in the procession, electing "boy bishops." In the later Middle Ages, the growing importance of the burghers (middle-class citizens) was reflected in the processions.
The early modern age (fifteenth to eighteenth centuries) saw a growing gap between popular culture and elite cultures, but in spite of political efforts to eradicate popular culture, processions continued to be an important part of city life. If the city was torn by religious, political, or economic tensions, this might be reflected in rival parades.
Parades in America
Still, however, processions remained primarily a tool for shaping a sense of community, as seen in the development of the American parade. In small town America the family is at the center of the parade. Everybody takes part in the procession, and if the parade features religious or patriotic symbols this of course makes the children feel the links between family, church, and nation. But these parades may also offer a playful comment on everyday life, as in the New Orleans Parade during Mardi Gras, where African Americans dress up in stupendous feather costumes as American Indians, staging a kind of racial theater. Thus in a parade the child participant not only experiences the reality of metaphors such as "joining your neighbor," "marching together," and "standing side by side" but also learns that social identities and relations may change.
In the rapidly growing cities of nineteenth-century America this ritualized, collective movement took a distinctive form. Inspired by military parades, these celebrations provided a tool for asserting diverse social identities. Holidays such as Fourth of July, Washington's Birthday, and more local anniversaries were celebrated by different nationalities, occupations, and organizations. Whether national, ethnic, occupational, or moral (for example, the temperance movement), each social identity would form a marching unit within the parade. In contrast to most European processions, these parades did not have a plot or a goal such as arriving at a temple or handing over the keys of the city; participants simply wanted to proclaim their social identities to spectators along the streets.
The display of these identities often demonstrated the power of American society to synthesize its various components, but could also demonstrate uncompromising differences. After an 1876 Centennial parade in New York City, the New York Tribune noted "incongruous" units were assembled in the parade, including German bands, Irish temperance societies, Spanish, French, and Italian associations, trade unions, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. In later years, as more and more parades became ethnic rituals rather than broad civic celebrations, the potential for conflict—both among different ethnic groups and with authorities—increased. Carnival and control form the two poles of the history of parades. In modern New York City the Irish are still allowed to parade down Fifth Avenue on Saint Patrick's Day, but for many other ethnic groups it has become increasingly difficult to be allowed to use the prominent parts of the city. It is doubtful whether parades kept under close surveillance by the police have the same appeal to children as those in which the child enjoys the experience of being part of an enlarged, playful family.
Rise of Commercialism in Parades
At the turn of the twentieth century, politicians and merchants saw a common interest in basing parades on the identity of the consumer. The parade would show the commitment of the city to the "democratizing" commercial culture, and children would embody this democracy, which paid no heed to social, ethnic, or religious distinctions. The religious sinner, the nationalist, and the worker were replaced by the consumer, particularly the child consumer.
Since the middle of the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving Day had been celebrated in New York City by so-called ragamuffin parades, probably originating in European carnival traditions. Here, scarcity was the point of departure, with masquerading children begging for money. During the first decades of the twentieth century, however, abundance became the point of departure, with the great department stores arranging spectacular parades. In 1924 Macy's started its gigantic Thanksgiving Day parade, and during the Depression of the 1930s this parade, with its enormous floating balloons of comic figures such as Felix the Cat and the Katzenjammer Kids became immensely popular, attracting an audience of over 1 million along the parade route.
Commercial parades reflected a new attention to children as a special group. Department stores allied themselves with
psychologists and other experts in order to capitalize on this attention and to counter the still prevalent belief that "spoiling" children with too many toys would make them sinful. Thus when Macy's organized an extensive exposition of toys in 1928, they enlisted the help of child experts such as Sidonie Gruenberg, president of the Child Study Association, who argued that children are beyond good and bad, and that though their instincts must be channeled, they have a right to imaginative play and should not suffer from "repressive penalties imposed by an arbitrary puritanism which suggests every desire and impulse of being Satanic."
The parades turned Gruenberg's suggestions into reality, and department stores profited from the close connection between commercial culture and Santa Claus. But at present the idea of a parade as a free space for imaginative play seems to be counteracted by the reduction of children to spectators being held under close surveillance by armed police.
See also: Consumer Culture; Theme Parks; Vacations; Zoos.
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Leach, William. 1993. Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture. New York: Vintage.
Lipsitz, George. 1994. Dangerous Crossroads: Popular Music, Postmodernism, and the Poetics of Space. New York and London: Verso.
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Tenfelde, Klaus. 1987. "Adventus: Die fürstliche Einholung als städtisches Fest." In Stadt und Fest: Zu Geschichte und Gegenwart europäischer Festkultur, ed. Paul Hugger and Walter Burkert. Stuttgart, Germany: Verlag.