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For nine years suburban residents have jammed the black-iced highways from Thanksgiving to Christmas in a brave effort to reclaim downtown Minneapolis as a hub of wholesome social activity. The event uniting these pilgrims is the annual Holidazzle parade, an illuminated twilight march down Nicollet Mall complete with elaborate floats and marching bands.
There is some disagreement about the true intentions of those behind the Holidazzle. Many assert that, in an attempt to lure holiday shoppers from convenient, climate-controlled malls, downtown merchants stapled some Christmas lights onto some old Aquatennial floats and called it The Must-See Family Event of the Season. Others claim Holidazzle is yet another stunt to show the rest of the nation we've got the cojones to stand around outside when the temperature drops below -10. But those who do venture north on I-35W at 5:30 in the evening equipped with blankets and a Thermos and singing old standards in joyful chorus believe that real holiday magic can be absorbed by sitting on a slushy curb for half an hour. Intent upon viewing the holidays through the glassy eyes of these innocents, I vow to attend consecutive Holidazzle evenings until I feel the local holiday spirit rising up within me.
Snow is falling gently on the Mall on this Wednesday at twilight, practically made to order for this 1000-watt Disneyesque event. Rosy-cheeked children test the padding in their snowpants by flinging themselves, butt first, onto the sidewalk. Unkempt passersby are few; the city council has obviously done an excellent job clearing out the riffraff before Mr. and Mrs. Edina showed up. The closest to bumdom I can discern is a quartet of burly men in coveralls and stocking caps swapping extreme-winter stories as they smoke cigars and spit on the sidewalk.
The first "float," a pickup truck collecting canned goods, slows to a stop to allow cheerful volunteers to accept full grocery bags from front-row do-gooders. I refrain from joining an overheard argument about what happens in "Jingle Bells" after the Batmobile loses its wheel. (The Joker gets away, duh.) This third-grader battle royal is interrupted by marching children cocooned in electric lights, smiling bravely and waving stiffly against the cold. "Ohhh, look at that little guy," one mom coos to another. "He's a sweetie--oh, no, but look at her!" the woman's cohort responds, pivoting in time to prevent her own little one from ingesting filthy downtown snow.
The circus train, one of the most popular floats, features caged preschoolers in animal costumes, slumped over and nodding as lethargically as actual circus animals. A collective saccharine "Awwwww" travels like the wave through the adults along the block. Two teens have taken the distraction of others as an opportunity to lock braces in a bus shelter, their overstuffed down parkas preventing them from getting too close. The Mother Goose characters seem to fly by, and when Santa and his sleigh appear, a frenzied preteen grabs her mother's coat. "Is that it? I mean, is it over? Is that all there is?"
THE TEMPERATURE HAS headed south tonight, so I take the skyway over to the parade site. And it is here that I discover the Holidazzle counterculture. These are the cheaters who sit in 68-degree splendor and view the parade as it passes beneath them. To be sure, many of these folks are office workers who are inappropriately dressed for outdoor activities. But some of those with their foreheads to the glass have obviously planned this. (The coolers and seat cushions are a dead giveaway).
"Look, it's the Nutcracker," a young woman chirps, tapping the glass and elbowing her son. "And that's uh, uh, I can't read that. Oh! Wizard of Oz." There's a lot more socializing in the skyway than on the street, perhaps because it's easier to converse without scarves and earmuffs. But the lights of the floats do seem more enchanting from one story up. "Whoa, look at those!" exclaims a wide-eyed tyke, pointing out Xcel Energy's line of marchers wearing multicolored plastic bulbs and connected by a cord, simulating a string of six-foot-tall Christmas lights. Everyone murmurs mutual admiration. Before Santa's sleigh has even cleared our overpass, the indoor revelers are packed up and gone, determined to be first out of the crowded parking ramps.
FRIDAY NIGHT: I'M curbside between Sixth and Seventh streets: primo Holidazzle real estate. The people lining the mall are (tonight at least) shivering with anticipation rather than hypothermia. When the parade starts, the crowd is immediately, unabashedly into the show. Grownups hoot and holler as though they really believe Santabear and Mrs. Bear just got hitched. A toddler on Daddy's shoulders vigorously thumps his father's head in time with the Coon Rapids High drum line.
In front of me, two boys and three girls, ranging in age from seven to eleven and fashionably underdressed for the weather (i.e., jackets open, headwear left in the car), are bickering over how best to deploy an old U-Haul blanket. The girls want to sit on it, while the boys want it over their laps. "Majority rules," sneers one of the girls. "Majority doesn't always rule: Al Gore won the popular vote but he's not going to be president," retorts a precocious Harry Potter lookalike. As marchers approach our section, the quintet decides to shout "Whaaaassssup!" to each passing participant. When the Princess and the Pea float arrives, the youngest boy proudly shouts, "The Princess who pees!" (To relay the reception given the Nutcracker float is perhaps a bit gratuitous.)
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