Almost every known culture celebrates the turning of the new year. They don’t all celebrate it in the same way, or even at the same time of the year, but at some point during our perpetual 365 1/4 day trip around the sun, billions of people mark its completion and the beginning of the next. New Years celebrations are full of happiness and hope, and offer a metaphorical, and sometimes literal opportunity to wipe the slate clean, start over, and resolve to do this year what we were unable to accomplish in the last. From Sydney Harbor in Australia to Times Square in New York City, those resolutions are made under fireworks, crystal balls, and to the tune of the Scottish poem, “Auld Lang Syne.” Growing up, I was always allowed to stay up until midnight to “watch the ball drop” and toast the new year with a drink of sparkling grape juice before I was shuffled off to bed. At midnight on January 1, 1981, standing on my great grandmother’s front porch, I was introduced to a new and uniquely local tradition–the New Year’s midnight parade in Grand Saline.
We had just moved to and spent our first Christmas in town. I was still missing the friends I’d left behind in Irving. Before, there always seemed to be something going on at our house or at someone else’s house on New Year’s Eve with other kids around. That first year in Grand Saline, it was just us. At the stroke of midnight, just as the local stations broadcast the Times Square ball drop our time, the “fire alarm” (as my grandmother called it) downtown sounded one long alarm and in the air beyond it, I could hear the sirens of every emergency vehicle in town tune up and join in. If my mom hadn’t told me what was going on, I would have been convinced that something terrible was happening. As the fire alarm wound down and went silent, I could hear what sounded like hundreds of car horns alongside the sirens. We lived about a mile from downtown, so as the parade headed east down Highway 80 and up Highway 17 to Bradburn Road, the sound, now far away in the darkness, seemed almost as if it were part of a dream. Soon, however, the long line of New Year’s revelers following fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars made their way back to High Street and headed toward our house. I was disappointed when they turned on Houston Street before they passed by, but my grandmother told me it was because they couldn’t get that close to the hospital “making all that racket.” Who knows if that was the actual reason, but it sounded legitimate. Before long, the last of the cars had turned, and once again, the sounds of the New Year grew further away. I went back inside, toasted with grape juice, and headed off to bed having just experienced my first New Year’s parade in my new hometown.
I’ve asked a number of people how the tradition got started and how long it has been going on. No one I asked seemed to know, although I’m sure there is someone around who does. Regardless of its origins or age, the Grand Saline New Year’s Parade is one of those wonderfully quirky traditions that so many towns and cities across the country still practice. I don’t remember how old I was when I first participated in the parade, but I do remember loading up in my mom’s car with a friend, driving downtown and waiting in a long line next to the train tracks. We anxiously looked at the clock on the dashboard, which apparently was about three minutes ahead. At precisely 12:03 (according to that clock), the fire alarm sounded, the sirens wailed, and all of those horns began honking. Being in the parade added a new layer of sound–the shouts of “Happy New Year” from inside all of those cars. As we wound slowly through the streets of Grand Saline, we passed house after house with lights still on and folks out on their front porches, in their driveways, and standing curbside returning our New Year’s wishes with enthusiasm. There were even a few employees and residents waiting outside Anderson’s Care Home as we passed.
As I got older, I opted to ride or drive in the parade with friends. One year, the 1984 Chevy Celebrity that I drove in high school was loaded down with six passengers. Another offered the chance to ride in the bed of a pick-up truck, freezing with several other friends. As naturally cynical teenagers, we spent more time making good-natured fun of people standing outside in the freezing weather at midnight waving at car loads of high school students passing by. But, it was all in fun, and we did have plenty of that. In 1989, a dense fog had descended on Grand Saline, and the parade route got cut short. But, I was riding with friends who were somehow uninformed of the change. It didn’t take long to figure out that we had been separated from the main group and we never managed to find them. So, we drove around town honking and screaming solo–I’m sure residents appreciated our efforts. Two years later, I was the youth director at the Methodist Church, and had a New Year’s Eve lock-in for the youth group. At 11:30, we loaded the church van and drove downtown to take part in the parade. I had no idea until we were followed back to the church by the person in the car behind us that a couple of the kids had smuggled Roman Candles on board and were shooting them out the back windows of the bus during the parade. Of course, I played the part of the responsible adult and gave the kids a good dressing down, but secretly I wished I had thought of it myself!
There are, no doubt, countless stories that could be told by the countless people who have participated in the parade over the years–stories of good times with good friends celebrating the new year in our own special way. It’s been well over ten years since I’ve participated in the parade, but during the time that I still lived in town, hearing those sirens wail at midnight brought a smile to my face and, somehow, made me feel “at home.” Let’s be honest, it’s a kind of goofy tradition. Over the years, when I’ve told people who aren’t from Grand Saline about our little midnight parade through the streets, I’ve gotten reactions which ranged from raised eyebrows to outright belly laughs. The thought of multiple emergency vehicles and dozens of private cars creeping along the streets at midnight honking, screaming, and causing a genuine ruckus, is fairly humorous. But, it’s part of the charm of growing up in and being from a small town in East Texas. It’s part of what makes our little hometown feel like home. It’s part of what makes us who we are.
Even though I won’t be there to be a part of it, I know that tonight, at the stroke of midnight, Grand Saline will wake up to 2017 and the hope that comes with the new year. Holding on to traditions like our midnight parade provides us with a touchstone, a landmark to return to when times get tough and when we’ve somehow lost our way. They help us mark the occasion of a chance to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again–doing away with the old; taking on the new. With a little luck, and an ample serving of Providence, this new year will be at least a little better than the last and will be filled with health, happiness, and prosperity. May that be what 2017 brings to you and to your family and friends, no matter how far from home you may be.