Every year for as long as I’ve been around Lewisburg, there has been a tried and true tradition on New Years’ Day at high noon. Surreal, bizarre, to say the least, hilariously offbeat, and delightfully diverse, the SHANGHAI PARADE has been walking the (off)beat for so many years, no one really knows how it began. It just has always been. Oblivious to rain or shine, through snow and sleet, through foggy skies and hazy hangovers, the people gather as spectators, aka innocent bystanders (at times an estimated 500 to 2000 strong), and they watch with a mixture of amusement, enjoyment, bewilderment, and at times, numb surveillance.
Let it be said that there is no rhyme-nor-reason to the themes of any entries. Last year’s Shanghai Parade in Lewisburg had 80 entries, and in many categories. Walkers, animals, floats, spirit award, and so forth… As each entrant passes the judges’ table, they receive a crisp $2 bill.
“It’s fun, it doesn’t require any pre-registration, so if two hours ago you thought, let’s go be in the Shanghai Parade, you can go do it,” said Susan Campbell, the parade starter. “It’s less organized than you could imagine and it’s beautiful that way,” said Ryan Keesee, an assistant scout master for Lewisburg Troop 70. He grew up participating and holds it dear to his heart.
Here you can see, at any given moment, prom queen girls glammed up in the back of a pick-up truck, followed closely by a lone woman walking with a white tree branch, then on to Elvis dancing with Patrick from Spongebob, jellyfish children wiggling their way along the route, masked dancers, a car dressed like a cat, puppies dressed as people, people dressed as puppies, and on it goes. One year, men dressed as miners crawled the entire route. There’s the ever-popular, scantily-clad, be-diapered Baby New Year, lovely costumed horses, jazzed-up tractors, men wearing suits of bacon… oh, my, there’s something for everyone. We loved the carload of women dressed as chickens (with a waving rooster, Big Red, at the wheel), and we were delighted by the amazing Llamas in Pajamas (thanks to Blue Meadow Llama Farm. And do not forget my own cronies as our ornately be-hatted witch brigade, the Washington Street Witches, cackling and waving our way down the street, with our sweet dogs leading the way. Often as someone passes, you scratch your head and say, “Well, what was that about?” And in a good way…
The origins, the history, the beginnings of this parade are enigmatic. Some say it began in the late 1800’s or perhaps even earlier. There is a myriad of theories as to the beginnings including the thought that a Pocahontas County fiddle tune named ‘‘Shanghai’’ may be associated with the tradition. Some older residents of this part of the state recall that ‘‘shanghying’’ once went on for days, usually in the week before and the week after Christmas. Everyone agrees that it does have Scotch-Irish and German ties. According to one of the judges, “Between Christmas and New Year’s in the 1800s, groups of people would form parties and travel over the countryside, visiting friends and neighbors. They would dress up with costumes and masks, and apparently that’s how the parade got its start.” And this tradition was called a “colie shangle”, which may have morphed through time and retelling into Shanghai. Some say it was a missionary who brought the tradition from China, or a traveling musician who sang about a Shanghai rooster. Nobody knows for sure, no one is left to tell the tale, so sometimes the point of a tradition is the existence of the tradition itself.
Normally beginning at high noon on Jan 1, when it falls on a Sunday, it will start at 2pm.
This phenomenon, the Shanghai Parade, is a mosaic of Americana, of creativity and comradery, and of ringing in the new. From a 1930’s news article about the gathering:“Let millionaire and pauper meet, and go marching down the street. The lid is off, fun is rife, let’s have the best time of your life.” Join the revelry.
– Susanna Robinson. HashtagWV #84, December 2016.