According to corporate retailers, Christmas begins sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving. From the day after Turkey Day, it’s full-bore shopping until that last lonely evergreen leaves the Boy Scout lot on Christmas Eve.
Staunton, the small Virginia town where I write, is no exception to this feature of life in our great commercial republic. Shopping trumps every other reason for the season. The churches push back, but they’ve only got one day a week to do it, and that isn’t enough when you’re up against Wal-Mart and Amazon. Even so, we retain one civic observance in our age of commercial supremacy and militant multiculturalism. It is a throwback to a time before we grew tetchy about religious displays in public places; to a time when ‘screen’ meant not devices annealed to our palms but the back porch in summertime and the metal mesh on the bedroom window that kept out the bugs; to a time when it was routine to greet friends and strangers on the sidewalk, and when it was thought rude not to.
Our annual Christmas Parade, remarkably, is still called just that. ‘Holiday Season’ generally wins out as the name for these six hectic weeks, and there are plenty of virtue-signalers about who scrupulously wish you ‘Happy Holidays’, or pretty much anything other than ‘Merry Christmas’. Yet here it is: Staunton’s annual Christmas Parade, right down the middle of what used to be the town’s main retail street, and is now a well-preserved and well-marketed Victorian streetscape. Add a little snow, and it could stand in for the set of a certain Frank Capra movie.
As Staunton has a college and a settlement of wealthy retirees from Washington DC and northern Virginia, the town suffers the same political polarization as much of Virginia, at least wherever the old rural culture still puts up a fight against the cosmopolitans. The midterm elections changed no one’s mind, and most of the yard signs are gone now. At the Christmas Parade, politics of any flavor – Trumpian, progressive, everything in between – seem a long way off. Their absence warms the heart, even on what is a cold night for a parade. We-the-people huddle together. We smile and greet whoever stands beside us. We let down our guard. The only screaming comes from a baby who would rather be home in bed.
Much is said these days about the dire state of civil society – all those dwindling ‘voluntary associations’ that de Tocqueville long ago spied out as the answer to our rampant individualism. Well, not everybody around here anyway bowls alone, not yet anyway. And yes, there is a perfectly respectable town bowling alley. Just watch this year’s Christmas parade go by. If de Tocqueville could, he would know what he was looking at.
A good parade takes organization and participation, and long parades are better. This one will snake around half a dozen blocks before even reaching the starting line. The marching doesn’t begin until 7pm, but experienced spectators stake out their curbside real estate between 4pm and 5pm, with canvas lawn chairs with drink holders in the arms, and lots of plain blankets spread out on the concrete. Everybody respects the protocol: ‘We got here first, thank you very much, even if we’re inside the coffee shop just now to keep warm.’ By 6:30pm the crowd gathers in earnest, backlit by shop windows, shiny street decorations overhead, and vendors hawking garish carnival junk.
The line-up assembles a couple blocks off the main drag. Gaggles of fresh-faced, self-conscious teenagers in fancy band uniforms, just being teenagers before their directors snap them into formation. Old folks from the retirement homes warm in their vans, all decked out with Santa hats and tinsel. Boys and girls from the scouts and the Sunday schools grasp batons and banners for twirling. A donkey (or is it small pony?) tests his tether before getting prodded into place. Children are everywhere and lots and lots of moms and dads.
Three or four public high school bands, in rank order, lyres lit, clarinetists and flautists in front with white gloves minus the fingertips, followed by brass and percussion, churn out spirited Christmas carols. The Future Farmers of America from Fort Defiance High School out in the county wave from their hay wagon, bales festooned with colored lights. Little ballerinas from the local dance school just up the street prance merrily in their tutus. Pretty girls from Stuart Hall, a posh Episcopal prep school also just up the street, sport a big banner and bright smiles. The Salvation Army marches, as they have marched forever.
Local businesses and family farms have sponsored floats, some little more than a pick-up with a few folks waving, some elaborate chicken-wire creations of Christmas living rooms complete with cardboard fireplaces and families on the sofa waiting on Santa. Always, in a Southern parade at least, a few Harley guys and girls in Santa hats make themselves heard but not over-doing it. Half a dozen crèches roll by, with Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, bath-robed shepherds and magi and the holy animals all in attendance, reminding us of the original reason for the season.
The crowd stands, three- or four-deep along six big blocks, some of them friends and neighbors of the paraders, some no doubt strangers though less-so for this moment. If I were to venture a very unscientific guess about their politics, I would say most of them are Trump’s people or some variant; certainly more deplorable than elite, though in small places like this, where shoulders tend to rub closely, there is more blurring of those sad descriptors than perhaps in metropolitan settings.
Not quite everyone however mingles and watches from curbside. Some of our old buildings now contain nice apartments with bays and good street views. A couple host parade parties where wine-sippers in nice holiday sweaters look comfortably down on the public proceedings below. It is silly to make much of this, but it’s a different, above-it-all experience. It’s tempting just to enjoy the party and let the parade pass you by. I have been one of them. But I think this year I’ll stay down on the street. I might even parade, too.