Cochecho Friends is bringing back the Holiday Parade to Dover. This essay by Dover resident Cindy Shattuck beautifully captures the spirit of past parades.
I was born in 1954 in Dover, N.H., a working-class town shaped by the old cotton mills that later turned out shoes and early electrical components. There was also a tannery that cured hides for leather and provided many jobs. Life in Dover was simple and mostly uneventful back then. The people worked hard, went to school, attended church, and sometimes went to The Strand to catch a movie. We had a small but bustling downtown, complete with stores such as W.T. Grant and J.J. Newberry. But there were also many small businesses that provided clothing, housewares, and furniture. Western Auto was where you went for sporting goods and auto parts.
Ora’s Candy Shop was a destination for homemade sweets, and Harvey’s Bakery was a daily stop for many to pick up maple squares or a birthday cake. The drug stores, two banks, and small neighborhood markets provided everything else we needed. I lived with my parents in an old apartment house that was originally built for mill workers. The neighbors watched over each other’s kids as we spent hours playing outside. I still live in Dover, and though it has changed so much through the years and is now considered a city, it remains anchored by the large brick mill buildings and the Cocheco River running through the center of it. I have loved living my life here. And though there are so many memories, one of my most treasured ones is of the annual Christmas parade.
Back then, Christmas was hardly even thought about until after Thanksgiving. There were no early radio or television commercials, no advertising in the newspaper. Stores and shops had no sign of tinsel or decorations. The first signal of the holiday for all of us kids would come a few days before Thanksgiving. The public works men would begin to hang the large colored bulbs back and forth over Central Avenue, our main street through town. Wreaths would suddenly appear on each light post. Then they would tackle erecting a soaring evergreen on the “upper square” that a local citizen would proudly donate each year from their own property. The towering tree would be festooned with the same-colored lights and topped with a large star. But we had to wait for the Christmas parade, always held on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, to see their work come to life. We didn’t realize it then, but the night before the parade, the merchants would stay late in their shops to decorate their windows in the dark, quietly preparing for them to be unveiled the next evening.
On that Sunday, my mother always made a large pot of turkey soup from our leftovers. The windows would fog up with steam as the soup bubbled away on the gas stove. We could always count on the weather then to be chilly, if not downright freezing. The soup would be a welcome reward after we returned from the parade. As afternoon melted into early evening, we would begin to gather our warmest winter clothing late in the afternoon, and excitedly get dressed when it was time to leave our home and walk to Central Avenue. We were layered in wool from head to toe in hats, scarves, sweaters, coats, pants, mittens, and socks. Fur-lined rubber boots, buckles clanking, were always on our feet. And off we went, my mother and me. Our breath would billow out before us in the chill night air, as we chattered about what to expect. We would often meet up with neighborhood friends and acquaintances as we made our way to stake out our place on the parade route. The excitement was now beginning to build, and a giddy thrill ran up my spine as we approached our favorite spot near the comer drugstore. The crowd would grow and stretch for the nearly two-mile length of the parade route, and the only lights were the few traffic signals, blinking red, green, and yellow. It was dark and cold as we waited for 5 o’clock. As a child, it was almost unbearable.
And then, it happened. The nearby firehouse would blast its loud horn just once, and as if by magic, the world around us was instantly transformed into a Christmas wonderland! The colored bulbs hanging over our heads would light up, and the town tree would shine with gaudy splendor. At the same time, the merchants would all flip their switches on their newly created window displays, their golden light and sparkling decorations rivaling anything seen in Boston! I would completely forget about my cold toes as I took in the wonder of that moment. I remember the sound of the crowd letting out a collective sigh at the sheer wonder of it, and then everyone bursting into cheers and mitten-muffled applause. We were allowed a few minutes to marvel at the awe-inspiring spectacle, and then the parade would officially begin. There would be local school marching bands and homemade festive floats, along with church choirs and local civic organizations rolling by on the flatbeds of handsomely decorated trucks. The arrival of Santa on a fire truck signaled the end of the parade, and then we would turn and begin the frigid walk home, anticipating the warmth and hot turkey soup that awaited us there. As we walked, I would often glance back at the sparkling lights, trying to prolong the experience and make it last. Though I would see the light many times later throughout the season, nothing compared to that wondrous moment before the parade. All these many years later, that memory can still bring a catch to my throat and a smile to my lips, and I relive the warm sweetness of Christmas long ago.
The Dover Holiday Parade Planning Committee still seeks floats, marching groups, and sponsors for this year’s parade. Go to CochechoFriends.com for details.