Parade History: When Did We Start Doing This All The Time?

By | March 12, 2021

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Confetti covers the crowd gathered for the Washington Nationals parade celebrating their World Series. (Getty Images)

The word "parade" usually evokes a feeling of excitement and celebration, the deep urge to celebrate a person, idea, or event above the everyday humdrum of life. How long parades have been going on depends on how you define them, but the simplest definition is "a procession of people," usually assembling in public over a specific item or goal. The earliest known parades date all the way back to pre-history, with Spanish cave paintings depicting crowds cheering as hunters brought back their prey, but parades of today can be about anything from music and sports to war and sexual identity. So why do we march, and what are some of the most impactful parades in history?

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The traditional, and famous, Chinese New Year Firework Display over Victoria Harbour. (Michael Elleray/Wikimedia Commons)

Early Parades

For most of ancient history, parades were arranged for either religious or military purposes. In 2000 B.C.E., the Babylonians celebrated the Akitu, or the New Year, by carrying statues representing their gods through the streets and performing rituals (one of which involved beating up their own king, strangely enough). In 223 B.C.E., when consul Marcus Claudius Marcellus returned to Rome on a chariot after a decisive victory over the Gauls of Northern Italy, he was met with great fanfare from the military and citizens alike. More joyful versions of ancient parades can, of course, be seen in the ancient Olympic Games, where ceremonial dress, singing, and dancing were common elements of the athletic festival.

One of the most enduring mass celebrations on Earth is the Chinese Lunar New Year, which is still observed by over 1.5 billion people annually. The earliest evidence of the Chinese calendar is thought to be from around 1400 B.C.E., and over the following centuries, more and more traditions rose to mark the occasion. Animal sacrifices and home cleaning were some of the earliest, but the most famous iconography—fireworks, dumplings, the dragon dance—actually didn't pop up until the time of the Tang Dynasty of the fifth century C.E. Fun fact: The biggest lunar festival outside of China takes place in San Francisco, California, thanks mostly to the large Chinese-American population whose ancestors immigrated during the Gold Rush of 1848.