November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving parades, a Jazz Age invention

Many of our most visible and cherished "traditions" don't go back very far at all, showing that traditionalism isn't about maintaining whatever there was in ye olden days, but about preserving the good innovations of earlier eras (and weeding out the bad ones).

A good example are large-scale Thanksgiving parades, where all of the major ones were founded during the 1920s and early '30s. The Macy's parade began in '24 and introduced the balloons in '27, the America's Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit started in '24 too, the Gimbels parade in Philadelphia before either of those in '20, the Hollywood Christmas Parade in '28, and Chicago's Grand Holiday Tradition parades in '34. The newest parade I could find that has been going for any time is Pittsburgh's Celebrate the Season parade, which began in 1980.

Not surprisingly we see all of these popping up during rising-crime periods, and especially during the second apocalyptic half of such a period (except for the Chicago parade that began one year after the 1933 peak in the homicide rate, but close enough). They are yet another example of a visual spectacle whose creation seems possible only during such times of mounting danger in the environment. Others are Art Deco skyscrapers, movie palaces, the carnivalesque form of the department store and mall, the automat and food court, sublime golf course architecture, public Fourth of July fireworks events, massive Christmas displays, and many others.

In contrast, the falling-crime era of the mid-century (1934-1958) brought us Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a catalog of gentle and secular Christmas songs, and not much else in the way of holiday traditions.

By the way, I've never really felt possessed by any of those Christmas songs, so they seem over-rated to me, although I realize most people do feel warm when they come on. The only Christmas songs I've loved are "O Tannenbaum" and "Silent Night," which just so happen to have been composed during a period of rising homicide rates across Europe, in 1824 and 1818 respectively. That was during the apocalyptic second half of the Romantic-Gothic period of 1780-1830. Throw in "Man in the Mirror" by Michael Jackson from the recent crime wave, which sounds like a Christmastime song.

In any case, even if you value a falling violence rate over cultural innovation, you should still be thankful that we have had periods of rising violence rates in the past that led to more inventions. Most experiments went nowhere, but some of them were great successes, and we're blessed to still enjoy them.


  1. I guess when we are reminded of, or made aware of death in any form we are more viscerally inspired to create forms of life that can be enjoyed in community. We need to bond with others, if only with a polite smile, to know that we are visible to them, that our passing will not be unremarked.

    Slightly off-topic, City planning officials feel their duty very seriously of protecting the lives of their citizens by zoning away disturbing, noisy and plain messy land uses such as retail and commercial buildings from single family detached residences, using apartments as a transition zone in-between. (The pictures you include in your post about drive-in restaurants & theaters, highlight this zoning/isolation very clearly.) BUT then they miss the public life and visual spectacle brought about by the messy mixing of commercial and residential lives. They try to recreate this with mandating mixed uses, very sanitized for sure, but still trying to bring back the sense of community in public without attendant dangers. The exercise seems always fraught with tension because while the end result may be admirable, the means usually involve making one-on-one deals with developers - such opportunity for graft and favoritism.

    Thank you for the thought-provoking post. It reminded me of Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, just a tad.


  2. Funny enough, there's a field in psychology called Terror Management Theory, which shows that when people are reminded of death, especially when they could be preyed on (rather than from a weather accident), they tend to get more conservative, value community togetherness, and so on.

    I've been meaning to review it for awhile, some day I'll get around to it.

    The more I've looked into the changes back and forth in the built environment, the more I think it's not so much about mixed-use vs. heavily zoned. It's more about how much variety there is among the people in whatever type of space, mixed-use or zoned.

    Not really racial or ethnic, since too much diversity there erodes a sense of community. I mean more like all ages are mixing it up, both men and women, social classes, and ideologies or lifestyles or whatever.

    By that measure the mall in its heyday was the ultimate carnivalesque space. Yeah you couldn't sleep there, but you could do just about anything else. All ages from children up through the senior center crew was there, males and females loved it the same, and all classes and ways-of-life within driving distance hung out there.

    That felt more organic and barrier-leveling to me than these phoney mixed-use New Urbanist spaces, where everyone is aged 30-49, no kids or old people, a lifestyle center dominated by female customers (spa, salon, yuppie restaurant, shoe boutique, etc.), and the narrowest range of SWPL values represented.


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