Photo by Mark Kennedy / The back of a park bench and a smartphone come to the rescue to see over the crowd at the Gatlinburg Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade.

I love a parade.

It takes me back to childhood. I was a drummer in the Columbia Central High School Band, and we marched in the Mule Day Parade in my Maury County hometown.

Tens of thousands of people would line West Seventh Street, our main downtown artery, to watch marching bands, floats and farm animals pass in review. Trust me, it was a show. There was also a Mule Queen, which has to be one of the most ill-named beauty crowns in America.

As a snare drummer, I had the advantage of being able to see the street in front of me, which was a definite advantage when dodging mule piles. Trombone players and bass drummers, with their vision partially blocked by their instruments, would sometimes stomp right through the muck.

Drummers are especially active during parades, playing cadences between songs and then "roll-offs" to signal the brass and woodwind sections to snap their horns and get ready to play. I have tinnitus in my left ear today that I attribute to 10 years as a drummer.

Later, in college at Middle Tennessee State University, the MTSU Band of Blue would take to the streets at least once a year for the football homecoming parade. There the challenge was walking in a straight line on Saturday morning while feeling the effects of a college Friday night.

All this came back to me last weekend in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. While in the mountain city for a soccer tournament with my 13-year-old son, we decided to check out the Gatlinburg Fantasy of Lights Christmas Parade. Like Mule Day, it too, attracts thousands of spectators who line the Parkway, the tourist mecca's main street.

In Gatlinburg, the Christmas parade remains a big deal, a piece of 20th-century Americana that stirs seasonal cheer and is telecast on about 100 televisions outlets. It's the real deal, with everything from bloodhounds to beauty queens.

There are about 10 high school bands, all playing holiday hits that they've probably only practiced for about 30 minutes.

"Maybe they'll have a 100-foot Snoopy balloon like they have at the Macy's Parade," I said while we waited for the parade to start.

"What's a Snoopy?" my son said.

The longest minutes in the world are the five minutes before the start of a parade. There is a sweet release when the police cars finally pass, blurting their sirens to signal the start of something good.

From the start, my son was mesmerized by the spectacle. A car nut, he was giddy when row after row of muscle cars passed our position. When the crowd grew so thick in spots that he couldn't see over them, he figured out a way to stand on the back of a park bench with his iPhone hoisted overhead to watch the parade on its tiny screen.

I took the opportunity to rest my weary feet, and my thoughts wandered back to Christmas seasons past when we would take our sons, now 13 and 18, to Chattanooga's downtown Christmas parades.

It's disappointing to me that today's kids won't grow up with that tradition. We still have the MainX24 parade on the Southside, which has its charms, but doesn't have the scale of a proper city Christmas parade.

Here was the explanation of what happened to our downtown parade from a 2014 newspaper story: "The annual Holiday Starlight Parade, downtown Chattanooga's traditional Christmas parade, will not happen this year due to lack of financial support."

Contrast that with Gatlinburg, which has leveraged its Christmas parade into a major tourist draw.


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Mark Kennedy

Contact Mark Kennedy at or 423-757-6645.