I switched on the television this morning and there it was, the 129th Annual Tournament of Roses Parade, already well underway. This parade with its profusion of elaborately expensive flower-decked floats that glide down Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, Ca. while millions of spectators watch from both curbside and in the comfort of their homes via electronic broadcast, has become as much a New Year’s tradition in many American households as has pop[ing a bottle of champagne the night before.
Watching the Rose Parade on television was a New Year’s Day tradition in my parents’ home when I was growing up in middle of the country. Seeing tall palm trees on TV on January first was an exotic sight compared to the gray, bare-branched oaks, elms and maples shivering in the cold outside my hometown window. Pasadena’s bright blue and sunny skies (it’s only rained 10 times on the parade and only twice in my lifetime), were a Chamber of Commerce advertising postcard that teased those of us stuck in frigid temperatures with winter’s white snow and ice often coating the ground.
That’s exactly why the Tournament of Roses was originated in 1890 by the city’s Valley Hunt Club. The men of this civic organization envisioned the tournament and established a parade of flower decorated horse-drawn carriages as a way to promote their little Southern California city. Today, the event has developed into one of the biggest New Year’s Day celebrations in the country. Millions of flowers, buds, seeds and grasses are used to create the floats and make the Rose Parade one of the most beautiful holiday events in the world.
When I moved to Los Angeles I wanted to experience the Rose Parade in person. I never dreamed, as a kid back in Kansas, that one day I would actually huddle alongside all those other people to watch the big floats pass by within yards of where I stood. I went three times to the parade while living in Southern California. Veteran Rose Parade-goers will tell you tricks to preparing and staking out the best viewing positions. For some that means setting up tents the day before and spending the night on the sidewalk along with thousands of other dedicated and determined folks. The night takes on a festive atmosphere as people bring in the New Year together at their city campsites.
We never camped out choosing instead to arise well before dawn, load up the car with coats, camp stools, ladder, cameras, kids and provisions for the day then drive the 25 miles from our house in the San Fernando Valley to our friends’ home in South Pasadena. We parked our car in their driveway (a primo place) and hiked towards our desired parade spot. Experienced parade watchers have their favorite places from which to watch the two-hour moving spectacle. The first year, we staked out a spot near the start of the parade on California Boulevard and set up a ladder so that we could see over the heads of those lining the street in front of us. Even from our higher elevation, the floats towered above us as they passed by.
For the 1989 Rose Parade Centennial, we were treated to grandstand seats by my uncles and aunts from Phoenix and California who reserved overnight spots for their motor homes in a parking lot right off the parade route. My parents, who I’m sure never imagined that they would see the Rose Parade firsthand, my brother, Richard, and his young family flew out for the special celebration. We assembled early at the motor homes for a quick breakfast before the parade began then strolled together to our seats in the grandstand. We bundled up as it was colder than usual that year and kept ourselves warm by drinking steaming hot cocoa poured from a thermos. Everyone enjoyed the show except for my two-year-old son who cuddled in my husband’s arms and slept through the entire thing. Afterwards, we retreated to the motor home where we feasted on sandwiches while everyone else streamed out of the stands towards their cars and homes.
Following lunch, we headed over to where the floats were parked for post-parade viewing open to the public for a close-up look at the intricate floral work. Every inch on the floats must be concealed by the flowers or seeds. The colors are even more brilliant and breathtaking when you see each bloom that was painstakingly glued or stuck into place for the day’s parade by the countless volunteers who work through the night before to complete the decorating. The floats remain in the post-parade viewing area for a few days before being pulled out and towed unceremoniously by tractor to the many warehouses where they are dissembled.
I went for one final Rose Parade with my three sons, then ages five, seven and nine-years-old, in 1995. My husband chose to stay home. The rest of us arose pre-dawn, packed up the car, drove to Pasadena, parked and walked together up the street to our grandstand seats. The parade rolled by as we watched live one final time.
Float after float went by interspersed by the marching bands that had come from all over the country to take part. A little more than midway through the parade, one band in particular caught my eye. It was the Golden Eagle Marching Band from Ferndale, WA. Excitedly I pointed out to my sons that this band was from the little town we had visited near Bellingham, where we had vacationed the previous summer. It had to be serendipitous that the band made its one and only appearance in that Rose Parade. Only two years later, we would be watching the parade on television from our new home in Bellingham and recalling the New Year’s Days that we had gone to Pasadena to see the Rose Parade.