Gellman: Giving Thanks for the Macy's Parade

For many years, I marched as a clown in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Here is some of my clown wisdom:

The ordinary streets upon which we travel do not always have to be ordinary. On certain days, they can be a parade route. What makes this great parade special is the willingness to transform the ordinary into the magical. The key elements in this transformation are children, clowns and marching bands. The huge, helium-filled balloons are a nice treat, but they are not needed for the spiritual blessings of a parade.

Children, however, are essential to a parade because they represent the ceremony of innocence. Parents take their children to the parade because the children want to go. But parents really take them because kids need to go. Daily life is often so corrosive and difficult that we need a place and a time to recover simple joy. Of course, this can be done alone or as a family or with friends, but large crowds and the parade lift us out of our ordinariness together.

The root meaning of holiness is something set apart from the ordinary; the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is holy. In this parade, America recovers its innocence. In a bloody world where children are maimed and starved, we need to gather together. We need to celebrate kids’ ability to laugh and smile and watch in awe as a frog bigger than an apartment building floats down a street that only yesterday was filled with drivers cutting each other off and homeless people sleeping in the shadows.

In a religious universe, there’s a theological connection to holidays. Their annual recounting allows sacred time to enter profane time. The wonder of this great parade is that it allows all people, secular and religious, to experience the feeling of holiness without having to sign on to its beliefs—save for one, the most important one. That’s the belief that we can transform our world into a place of joy and celebration.

But for that, you need the clown. This is not adequately represented in the parade’s TV broadcast. Clowns are not usually shown—and, when they are, they’re only filler material. At the parade, however, the roll of the clown is clear and essential. The clowns are the capillaries of joy. Clowns walk along the edges of the parade route, smiling and waving at children and adults. The waves and smiles are little invitations to enter the spirit of the parade. They transform spectators into participants, watchers into celebrants. It’s as if they’re saying: “Come on, enter this moment, believe in this moment, let yourself smile and be joyous right now. Then, perhaps, when the parade is over, enough of that joy and thankfulness will stick to you to enable you to face tomorrow and all the tomorrows after it with a different outlook, a more generous spirit and a more hopeful heart.” Clowns are secular clerics. Their invitation is to a world that could just possibly intersect our world and change it forever. This is why a circus without clowns is just a show, and a parade without clowns is just a bunch of balloons.

Holidays usually divide us; Thanksgiving unites us. Thanksgiving offers us a way—it’s almost our only spiritually acceptable, national way—of affirming our American identity. We’ve inherited a country where giving thanks is a joyous, national obligation. And we can choose whether we want to link that thankfulness to God, who has created each of us with sanctity and dignity and inestimable worth.

To all of us (and most especially to the clowns), Happy Thanksgiving!