The Return of a Tradition
It’s been nearly 1,100 days since Holyoke has staged its St. Patrick’s Day Parade and accompanying road race. That’s way too long for the businesses that depend on those institutions for a large percentage of their annual revenue. And it’s way too long for a community that always gains a huge dose of civic pride when mid-March rolls around. The traditions are back for 2022, and for the city and the region, there is much to celebrate.
The cover to the program book for the 69th Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade was designed by an artist from Ireland.
Blended with the headline ‘The Season of Green,’ is a collection of the words that identify dozens of shades of green — from pistachio to lime; jade to shamrock — arranged in the shape of the Emerald Isle, and in those various colors.
It’s striking — and, yes, very green. But perhaps the most poignant thing about this publication is the date printed in smaller type to the side: March 22nd, 2020.
Indeed, this program book was published just over two years ago, and except for some minor updates in a supplement that will be inserted into the book, it remains profoundly unchanged. That goes from the date on the cover to all the advertisements inside to the ‘welcome’ from parade President Marc Joyce. In it, he thanks sponsors, the business community, and all those who helped make the parade possible. But there is no mention of the pandemic that kept this tradition from happening for two years.
“Civic engagement and pride in a community, any community, is critical. Any opportunity we can get to keep people excited about feeling good about the city they live in continues to help build on quality of life. That’s why it’s so important to have the parade back.”
Joyce told BusinessWest that the decision was made not to print another book, just that supplement, and to essentially pick up where the world, and Holyoke, left off when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a shutdown of the state just a week or so before the 69th parade was to step off.
“We like to say that it’s the 2020 parade in 2022,” said Joyce, noting that, in most all respects, the date of the 69th parade has simply been moved up two years. Everything, or almost everything, is as it was then; he is still parade president (his has been a long, grueling three-year stint; normally, it’s one year); John (Jay) Driscoll, a prominent lawyer in Holyoke, is still the grand marshal, and Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Liberty Bank, is still recipient of the prestigious John F. Kennedy Award.
It is as if time has stood still in some ways. Only it hasn’t, obviously.
Holyoke has been without its greatest tradition for nearly 36 months now, and as it returns, many reflected on all that has been lost — and what has been regained as more than a month of parade-related events and gatherings have returned.
While those in the business community spoke of lost revenue — in some cases more than a third and perhaps even half of what they would generate in an entire year — and lost opportunities to introduce themselves to thousands of patrons (more on that later), all those we spoke with mentioned other, even more important losses, including a sense of identify and feelings of pride in the community.
As for what is being regained … the word that came up over and over and over again is ‘normalcy.’
“There’s a lot of pride in our community when it comes to parade weekend activity, when it comes to the parade and the road race, not just in this community, but across the region,” said Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia. “With quaranteening and all the other things we’ve had to deal with, this will bring back some kind of sense of normalcy.
“And that’s important, because civic engagement and pride in a community, any community, is critical,” he went on. “Any opportunity we can get to keep people excited about feeling good about the city they live in continues to help build on quality of life. That’s why it’s so important to have the parade back.”
Peter Rosskothen, owner of several hospitality-related businesses in Holyoke, including the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and others, agreed.
“It’s very good for business,” he said of the parade, the road race and the month of events and activities leading up to it. “But it’s also good for the morale of Holyoke; it’s bigger than business, it’s civic pride, it’s the community coming together. Holyoke is a city with some problems, but you kind of forget about that with the parade.”
Joyce concurred, noting that the losses are not restricted to dollars and cents.
“It’s in the mindset and emotions of people who have grown up with this,” he explained. “I’m 71 years old, and I’ve been on the committee for 45 years. And I remember the first parade I went to; my father was marching with the Post Office, and my mother and I would walk about a mile and a half downtown to watch the parade. When I was away at college, I missed a few parades, but other than that, I haven’t missed any.
“It’s a homecoming,” he went on. “People come back to the city, and you see people you haven’t seen since perhaps last year; it’s a wonderful family-oriented event.”
For this issue, BusinessWest puts the lost years of 2020 and 2021 into perspective, and looks ahead to what all are expecting to be a memorable month as Holyoke welcomes back a tradition.
Mummers the Word
As he reflected back on March 2020 and the parade that wasn’t, Joyce said he remembers many things from that turbulent, mostly forgettable month, including the weather, which, to all those involved with this tradition, is often a big part of the story.
Mid-March in New England can bring with it all kinds of weather, and the parade has seen just about everything over its long history — snow, cold, rain, sleet, wind, and, occasionally, some sun and spring-like conditions.
In a somewhat cruel bit of irony, there were two such warm, sunny days — for the parade and the accompanying road race — in 2020, said Joyce, adding that it was the same in 2021, a meteorological turn of events that would only add insult to the injury of having to call off the parade two years in a row, he noted.
Turning his attention to 2022, Joyce joked that there is now considerable pressure on Driscoll.
“We always kid that the grand marshal is in charge of the weather, one way or the other,” he explained. “I kid with him and say, ‘Jay, you’re two for two; can you pull it off a third time?’ I’m hoping, for all of our sakes, that he can.”
Keeping one’s sense of humor hasn’t been easy for the past two years, but Joyce and others involved with the parade have had little choice. The alternative is too depressing.
Recapping the past two years, Joyce recalled that “all systems were go” for the 2020 parade even as the virus first detected in China made its way to this country.
“We know it was out there, but no one knew how serious it was going to be,” he said. “The parade that was going to be in 2020 was canceled about 10 days before the event. That was really tough; people were saying ‘Oh, you’re babies, don’t cancel it.’ The fact of the matter is, we didn’t cancel it. Alex Morse, who was mayor at the time, called me into his office; we met with the Board of Health, and the DPW, and the police and fire, and they explained clearly the science of this thing and the interconnectedness of everything. The Fire Department was concerned that if they lost half their force to COVID, they wouldn’t be able to protect the city of Holyoke appropriately, and it was the same with the police.
“This is an event when every bar can show off what they can do, and we missed out on that opportunity for two years.”
“That was a hard pill to swallow but we always figured that this would be over soon and we’d be back in 2021,” he went on. “But that didn’t happen, for obvious reasons; we actually approached the city right after the first of the year in 2021 — the directors met, we discussed it long and hard, and we just figured that the same reasons we canceled in 2020 still existed in 2021, and it just made no sense to go forward. We approached the city and said ‘this is just not going to work, and we’ll be back in 2022.’”
Joyce remembers sitting on his front porch on parade day 2021, soaking in the gorgeous weather, drinking a Guinness, and watching a few friends drive down the street honking their horns. “That was the extent of the parade.”
Over the course of the past two years, the parade committee has never really stopped preparing for the 69th parade, he went on, adding that some things have gone on as they normally would, like the annual past president’s raffle and a memorial mass for deceased members of the committee.
Meanwhile, there has been planning — much of it via Zoom — for events this year, such as a gala staged late last month at the Log Cabin, the annual Awards Night, and many others.
As for the parade itself, it will be roughly the size of previous parades, with 15,000 marchers expected, close to 30 musical units, and 19-20 floats. What Joyce and everyone else expects to be larger this year — as in much larger, is the level of anticipation for both the parade and the race.
“It’s really hard to describe,” said Joyce. “Anywhere I’ve gone over the past few years and especially the past six to eight months, people have walked up and said, ‘Marc, are we having a parade?’ ‘Are we having a parade next year?’ People are excited to have the parade back.”
That’s especially true within the business community and its hospitality sector, which has suffered mightily over the past 24 months, as we’ll see.
Glass Half Empty
Wasting no time at all, that’s the word Damien Rivera used to describe road race day at the Unicorn Inn on High Street.
“Really crazy,” he went on, gesturing with his hand around the two rooms that comprise this cozy neighborhood bar, adding that, by late morning on race day both rooms would be crammed with standing patrons — standing because the establishment can fit more people in if there are no tables and chairs on the floor.
Elaborating on ‘crazy,’ Rivera, a long-time employee who once lived above the bar with his father, Bobby Rivera, the establishment’s bar manager, detailed all that goes into race day at the Unicorn, which is even bigger than parade day, because, as he noted, the race ends at that northern stretch of High Street, and that’s where people congregate; the parade, in contrast, is spread out over a larger area, and thus the crowd is more spread out as well.
“It’s bigger than business, it’s civic pride, it’s the community coming together.”
He said that extra help is hired, a separate beer station is set up so that bartenders are not slowed by those who simply want a bottle of suds. There’s a DJ, and a deeper menu of food options is created, all in hopes of attracting race fans, who have a number of options when it comes to where to quench their thirst and whet their appetite.
Summing it all up, Rivera said simply “this is our Super Bowl — that’s the best way I can describe it,” meaning it’s the biggest, most lucrative time of the year. How big? Without giving specific numbers, he estimated that St. Patrick’s week — yes, it’s a week to many of those who celebrate it, especially when the holiday falls mid-or even early week and the parade as always, is on a Sunday — generates more than a third and perhaps even half of an entire year’s revenues.
What was it like to be without that week two years a row? Rivera simply shook his head and said “awful.” And by that, he was referencing more than just lost revenue.
“It’s a celebration,” he said of road race day, but also the entire week and beyond. “Holyoke is historically Irish, so when that week happens … it’s timely, it’s cheery, it’s a bright celebration of Irish culture, and for the businesses, this is our most important time.”
He said that establishments like the Unicorn depend on parade-week festivities for more than just revenue. It’s also a great marketing tool, a way to make introductions with potential new patrons.
“It brings people from so many places,” he explained. “If they didn’t know this place was here, they learned that it’s here. So not having the race and the parade meant that new people weren’t learning about this place as much as if we had it; this is an event when every bar can show off what they can do, and we missed out on that opportunity for two years.”
Nicole Ortiz is certainly looking to make some introductions during this year’s parade. She’s the owner of Crave restaurant on High Street, just across the street from City Hall — and the reviewing stand for the parade. She opened the establishment, which specializes in “modern and unique Puerto Rican food,” just over a year ago and missed out on a parade that year. In fact, Ortiz, who started with a food truck in early 2020, hasn’t experienced a parade as a business owner — although she’s heard quite a bit about the tradition from other business owners. She’s looking forward to the opportunity.
“They told me there’s tons of people down here, and they make tons of money,” she explained. “They say there’s tens of thousands of people down here for the race as well as the parade; it sounds pretty crazy.”
Rivera is looking forward to 2022 being a breakout year, and he’s not alone in that assessment.
Indeed, the phrase pent-up demand has been used in almost every context imaginable over the past 24 months, from cars to dining out to vacationing. And when it comes to the parade and the road race, pent-up demand is real.
Mayor Garcia drew parallels between this year’s parade and last year’s Big E. Both marked the return of an institution that the region had to do without, he said, adding that the Big E saw record attendance one Saturday during its run last year, and he’s expecting something similar with the parade.
Rosskothen agreed. “I feel that the parade is going to be bigger and better than it’s been in years,” he said. “I think people are ready to get out and do stuff. We’re handling the road race, and I’m preparing for a record breaker.”
“I feel that the parade is going to be bigger and better than it’s been in years,” he said. “I think people are ready to get out and do stuff. We’re handling the road race, and I’m preparing for a record breaker.”
Rosskothen, like others we spoke with, noted repeatedly that the parade and road race are not one day, or two days, as the case may be, but a week’s worth of celebration and, actually, several weeks’ worth of events, activities, and Irish-related food, drink, and culture leading up to the climax of mid-March.
“It’s a whole month,” he said. “We start playing Irish music at our venues, people go out, and in my case we start selling corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner packages in the beginning of March at Delaney’s Market. It’s all tied into the parade; it puts your Irish mindset on for lack of a better phrase.”
Joyce said that there are only about 500 of the program books left to distribute at the parade. Those already given out have become a kind of dubious collector’s item — a guide to a parade that didn’t happen, or wouldn’t happen for two years.
In a way, they have become a symbol, not of what was lost or of a time that stood still, but of the community’s resilience and of the immense importance of this tradition to the city and the entire region. No one ever really doubted that importance; it was too obvious for that to happen. But three years removed from the last parade, it is now even easier to see all that the parade and the race mean to Holyoke.
It’s not just the revenue for those bars, restaurants, hotels, and banquet halls, although that’s a very big part of it. It’s the sense of community, the feeling of pride, the people coming back to this city year after year. It’s history. It’s tradition. It’s Holyoke.
It’s something else, too. It’s normal, and everyone involved is excited that it has returned.
George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]