The Easter parade is an American cultural event consisting of a promenade on Easter Sunday. Typically, it is a somewhat informal and unorganized event, with or without religious meaning. The parade is most closely associated with Fifth Avenue in New York City, but Easter parades are held in many other cities. Persons participating in an Easter parade traditionally dress in fashionable new clothes, particularly ladies' hats, and strive to impress others with their finery. Starting as a spontaneous event in the 1870's, the New York parade became increasingly popular into the mid-twentieth century—in 1947, it was estimated to draw over a million persons. Its popularity has declined significantly, drawing only 30,000 people in 2008.
Easter processions or parades, often including special dress, have been part of Christian culture since its earliest times. The Bible records two processions in the first Passion Week. The first was on Palm Sunday as Jesus was welcomed to Jerusalem by an adoring throng. The second took place as Jesus carried a cross to Golgotha. These parades are often commemorated in Christian religious services, and are seen as the earliest predecessors of the modern Easter parade.
Some authorities attribute the introduction of elaborate Easter ceremonies, including gaudy dress and display of personal finery, to the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early part of the fourth century.
During the Dark Ages, Eastern European Christians would gather in a designated spot before Easter church services, then solemnly walk to the church. Sometimes the congregation would form another parade after the services, retracing their steps and singing songs of praise. Even in these times, participants wore their finest attire to show their respect for their savior. These processions had two purposes—to demonstrate to churchgoers the unity of spirit found in their faith, and to reach nonbelievers in a highly visible manner.
In the Middle Ages, the clergy expanded these processions into teaching tools. Paintings and statues would be placed along city streets, where church members could walk from one to another to see all the "stations of the cross." To a public that had no access to the Bible and often could not understand the language in which church services were conducted, these special processions were a means to understanding their faith.
When Lent was expanded to forty days, parades were held on some of the most important of these. A contemporary example can be found in today's Mardi Gras parades.
Beginning about 1782, German settlers in Pennsylvania held non-religious parades on Easter Monday, then widely celebrated as a holiday. The parades continued for about 100 years.
Having new clothes for Easter also had deep roots in European religious customs. Sacred times called for special forms of dress to mark the holy celebration. Distinctive garb for Easter, like one's "Sunday best" and the special vestments of priests, for centuries had shown the solemnity and sacredness of the season. There is an old proverb that if on Easter Sunday some part of one's outfit is not new, one will not enjoy good luck during the year.
History in New York
From the 1880's through the 1950's, New York's Easter parade was one of the main cultural expressions of Easter in the United States. It was one of the fundamental ways that Easter was identified and celebrated.
The seeds of the parade were sown in New York's highly ornamented churches—Gothic buildings such as Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Patrick's Cathedral, and St. Thomas' Episcopal Church. In the mid-nineteenth century, these and other churches began decorating their sanctuaries with Easter flowers. These displays soon became defining examples of style, taste, abundance, and novelty, and those who attended the churches began to incorporate these values into their own dress. In 1873, a newspaper report about Easter at Christ Church said "More than half the congregation were ladies, who displayed all the gorgeous and marvelous articles of dress,... and the appearance of the body of the church thus vied in effect and magnificence with the pleasant and tasteful array of flowers which decorated the chancel."
By the 1880s, the promenade had become a vast spectacle, clearly defined as an afternoon religious and cultural event for the well-to-do, who would visit the beautiful churches to see the beautiful flowers. People from the poorer and middle classes would attend it to learn about the latest trends in fashion. The Easter parade had become New York's and the country's great annual fashion show.
A few years before that, dry goods merchants and milleners had begun commercial promotion of Easter and the Easter parade. A dozen years later, there was no bigger annual event in retailing; Easter was as important back then as Christmas is today.
Not all observers were enthused about the display of wealth and beauty. During the Great Depression, groups of unemployed workers paraded in worn-out clothing, carrying banners comparing the cost of one Fifth Avenue gown to a year's worth of welfare relief for one of themselves. Cranks and demagogues often used the parade to attract public attention and to plead their questionable causes.
In 1933, American songwriter Irving Berlin wrote the music for a Broadway musical revue called As Thousands Cheer. It included his song Easter Parade, written to capture the essence of its namesake. Both the song and the revue became tremendously popular, and the song became the basis for the Academy Award-winning 1948 film Easter Parade.
By the mid-twentieth century, the parade's religious aspects had faded, and it was mostly seen as a demonstration of American prosperity. The year 1946 saw the recurrence of stunts, pranks, and extravagant behavior. In 1947, the State Department's Voice of America broadcast a description of the Fifth Avenue parade to the Soviet Union, the idea being to show the economic inferiority of the Soviet system. In 1955, The Saturday Evening Post stated that New York's springtime pageant was only an incidental celebration of a religious holiday, and had become a reflection of the fact that, in America, a person was as good as the clothes and other goods he or she was able to buy. The parade itself had become an unstructured, boundless event, with no apparent beginning, ending, organization, or purpose. What had begun in the 1870's as a parade of refinement and religious display had become merely an ostentatious frolic.
In 2008, New York's Easter parade has become an echo of Halloween, with people and pets in outlandish costumes, and outlandish hats featuring themes such as live birds in flowery cages.
As New York's parade grew in prominence, other places developed their own versions. Philadelphia and Boston were among these, as were Coney Island and Atlantic City, where the parades became tourist attractions. In 1925, Coney Island merchants hired fifty show girls to parade in bathing suits as part of the event. The crowds were huge. During the 1920's, Atlantic City's parade attracted 200,000 and more. The parade there had become a vacation carnival of costuming and consumption—a rollicking amusement for the tourist.
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- Collins, Ace (2007). Stories Behind the Traditions and Songs of Easter. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan. ISBN 0-310-26315-8.
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