Ghosts of Christmases Past

Part 1: The Galesburg Christmas Parade

Jon Gallagher

For me, the start of the Christmas season in Galesburg was always the Christmas Parade held in downtown Galesburg. Bands from high schools in Knox and Warren Counties converged on the downtown area along with floats both big and small, tumblers from all the local gymnastics schools, a convoy of fire trucks, and marching units from various civic and church groups to fill the air with a festivity of sights and sounds.

Four years of Christmas parades are particularly memorable because I spent them wailing away on a snare drum while trying to keep in step with the rest of the Knoxville High School Marching Band.

It was always cold.

Not just cold… I remember being so cold that I thought I might have to move to Antarctica in order to warm up. No matter what the weather had been leading up to the parade, the day of the event ALWAYS had miserable weather. It could have been 70 degrees the day before, but a parade meant an Arctic cold front was poised at the edge of town, just waiting for a chance to provide the local hospitals with a few dozen cases of frostbite.

Charlie Knapp, our band director, always made sure that we were prepared. He told us to dress warmly under our band uniforms and keep our instruments warm as well. Two of the years that I marched, KHS was the only band that actually played music. The other high school bands from the area managed to freeze up their instruments and marched to a drum cadence for the entire parade route. But not Knoxville… we alternated playing Winter Wonderland and Jingle Bell Rock (I still get cold whenever I hear either song) and somehow made it through the end of the parade with only a few icing casualties.

While I usually had about nine layers of longjohns and sweatshirts under my band uniform, we had two or three insane girls in our band who helped the drum major lead the way. They wore sequined swimsuits that were a tiny bit bigger than a postage stamp, but I’m guessing, no ways near as warm. They twirled their batons and I often wondered why they didn’t set them on fire like they did at the halftime shows at home football games. By the time the parade reached the end, anyone in front of us was in serious danger of being trampled by these slightly deranged, extremely cold majorettes.

One of our secrets to keeping halfway warm was the fact that Charlie made us memorize the music instead of having it on little lyres in front of us. By concentrating on the notes we were playing, we didn’t have a lot of time to think about the cold. Unless, of course, you were a drummer like me, and all you had to do was hit the drum every once in a while. The time in between beats was well spent thinking about Hawaii or, more likely, where the nearest source of heat might be. I’ll admit that a few times my thoughts strayed to pondering what kind of an idiot I had to be to be marching in such weather

Bands from Galesburg, Knoxville, Abingdon, ROVA (before they added the W), Alexis, and sometimes Monmouth were all in the parade and both Churchill and Lombard Junior Highs were represented as well. Organizers had little trouble filling the spaces between bands with Boy Scout troops, Cub Scout Packs, Girl Scouts troops, and floats so that the music from each band didn’t blend together with the previous band or the one coming up soon.

Some sadistic halfwit always put the horses (and there were a bunch of them) at the front of the parade which meant that the bands not only had to play music, and keep in step, they had to dodge presents left behind in the street by the horses too. I swear that someone who didn’t like music fed the horses laxatives right before the start of the parade. It wasn’t until I was out of school that someone (probably a veteran parade marcher) came up with the idea to put the horses at the END of the parade.

Finally, the parade was brought to a conclusion with the appearance of the old fat guy himself, Santa. He’d sit on a firetruck and wave like a lunatic, trying to make sure that each little kid in the crowd got a personal flutter of the fingers. I realize now that he was just as cold as the rest of us and was just trying to keep warm.

I’m not sure where Santa went after he reached the finish line. I was always too busy trying to thaw out my fingers, toes, eyeballs, and nostrils.  

Interest has waned in the past few years. Some of the magic seems to have faded. No one wants to brave the cold and few area high schools send their marching bands (if they even have a marching band) any more. It’s hard to say if attendance is down because there’s not as much participation as their used to be or if participants are hard to come by because there’s no one there to watch.  It doesn’t matter; the Christmas Parade has signalled the official start of the season.