Eli McCann: Utah’s Pioneer Day is a Frankenstein’s monster of a holiday. Witness that wacky, wonderful parade.

It’s patriotic-palooza — even though our forebears were fleeing the U.S. in their trek to the West.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Days of '47 Parade makes its way down 200 East in Salt Lake City in July 2014. Tribune columnist Eli McCann says the procession, a potpourri of pioneer and not-so pioneer tradition, is, in a good way, a "hot mess"

In July 2014, I was living in an apartment on South Temple in downtown Salt Lake City when I started seeing families pull their minivans over to the side of the road and erect folding chairs on the shaded parts of the street’s park strip.

“They’re claiming their places for the parade,” a neighbor told me. “This starts happening around this time every year.”

“For Pioneer Day?” I asked, puzzled. “That’s not for another five days.”

The neighbor shrugged.

Having grown up in the Salt Lake Valley, I was, of course, familiar with Pioneer Day and was aware the downtown festivities included a large parade every July 24 (unless it fell on a Sunday). Although we never attended the parade, my family participated in the holiday each summer while I was growing up. Our celebrations mimicked the Fourth of July so a lot of my memories of this particular tradition are a bit blurry and hard to parse now. In fact, I don’t think I knew these were two wholly separate and distinct holidays until I was at least 14. I just thought our neighborhood was so patriotic we celebrated Independence Day twice.

Five days after people started setting up their chairs in 2014, I walked out to my apartment balcony to watch the parade crawl its way down the packed street. I don’t know what I expected to see. Cosplaying pioneers. Covered wagons. Brass bands belting out old-time Western folk classics. Any of that would have made sense, given that this holiday and the parade that kicks it off are meant to honor our exhausted, bloody-footed, immigrant religious ancestors who trekked through the unforgiving desert plains and mountains to seek refuge in our sparse salt-aired valley.

Santa Claus is coming to town — in July

(Eli McCann | Special to The Tribune) Christmas in July? Sure, St. Nick sort of fits in a Pioneer Day parade that features so many Latter-day Saint ties.

When I saw Santa go by in a motorized recliner, however, I realized we had really lost the plot on this whole thing. Or maybe it was the space alien-inspired float. Or the mermaid wearing a black skirt to cover her legs in an apparent attempt to make the fishtail coming off her heinie give the illusion that she was swimming down the street instead of walking (it did not successfully give this illusion). Or it might have even been the off-off-off-off-off-brand Winnie the Pooh throwing hard candy to tiny crying spectators.

True, there were pioneer cosplayers. But they marched, in character, carrying a confusing and aggressive number of apparently prophetic 50-star U.S. flags, seemingly unaware the whole point of this holiday is to honor our frantic fugitive forebears who fled the United States to start over in this, our lovely Deseret.

Just as a covered wagon with the words “Salt Lake Granite Stake” plastered along the side made its way down the street, a loud cheer caught my attention, and that’s when I noticed some raucous parade watchers a few balconies away. A sign from their railing read “Happy Pie & Beer Day.” After a quick observation, it became clear they were taking that second part of that message very seriously.

(Photo illustration by Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Happy Pie & Beer Day!

“We love the pioneers,” one man screamed, holding up a beer can as if to toast the paradegoers. A woman in a bonnet riding on the front of the wagon blew a kiss up to the tipsy spectators in response, prompting enthusiastic cheers from the drunken crowd.

Behind the wagon, a giraffe-themed float blasted “Wipe Out” by the Surfaris. To the side, sweaty marathon runners who had been funneled down the parade route to make their way to the Liberty Park finish line jumped over and dodged armies of obstacles, thanks to the many wandering toddlers whose parents had gotten distracted.

A float mounted with a large papier-mache spider — and no other context — then came into view.

I stood there in awe, taking it all in on my balcony — the chaos, the festivities, the enthusiasm from beer-guzzlers and churchgoers alike, all of this in the quirky town I love to its core.

A ‘hot mess’

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Paradegoers take in the Days of '47 Parade from a balcony on 200 East in July 2014.

It then occurred to me it was a Thursday morning. The rest of the country was going about its business on this typical workday, oblivious that Salt Lake City essentially had shut down so thousands of residents could party with St. Nick, bonnets, beer and pizza. Later, fireworks would light the night sky as a broadcast down the street of muumuu-clad Tabernacle Choir singers belted out jubilant frontier anthems behind overeager cymbal bangers and trumpeters.

Soaking all this in, I chuckled and whispered to myself, “This holiday is a hot mess.”

The images from that 2014 parade are seared into my memory. Every time I recall them, I smile.

My assessment of Pioneer Day hasn’t changed in the past nine years. It is an absolute mess. A baffling, contradictory, somehow over- and underinclusive, and sometimes misguided curiosity. A Frankenstein’s monster of a holiday, slapped together with unbridled and illogical traditions, symbols and activities, celebrated sincerely or sarcastically, and, for many of us, a little of both at the same time.

Yes, Pioneer Day is our state’s most wonderful, if not embarrassing, punchline.

And I love the hell out of it.

(Pat Bagley) Eli McCann, Salt Lake Tribune guest columnist.

Eli McCann is an attorney, writer and podcaster in Salt Lake City, where he lives with his husband and their two naughty (yet worshipped) dogs. You can find Eli on Twitter at @EliMcCann or at his personal website, www.itjustgetsstranger.com, where he tries to keep the swearing to a minimum so as not to upset his mother.

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