Note: The parade was called off for 2022 because of Covid-19 concerns.
No one knows exactly why it’s called the Shanghai Parade. No one knows its age. And no one knows the origin story behind the $2 bills. But none of that matters to residents of Lewisburg, West Virginia, who gather each New Year’s Day to watch a wacky assortment of floats and marchers parade along Washington Street. There is no registration or fee to enter. To the contrary; participants earn a little something. After they walk past the judges’ stand, organizers hand every marcher a crisp $2 bill.
“One of the big mysteries is how big the parade is going to be,” says Mary Ann Mann, the event’s organizer for twenty-five years. “Since there’s no registration, people just line up at 11 and march at noon. We never know how many people will come. But so far, we’ve never run out of $2 bills.”
Most folks agree that the spectacle started by the late 1800s, but some place it even earlier, in the 1840s. “We have a bunch of Scottish, Irish, and German families in this area,” Mann says. “Between Christmas and New Year’s in the 1800s, groups of people would form parties and travel over the countryside, visiting friends and neighbors. They would dress up with costumes and masks, and apparently that’s how the parade got its start.”
Masqueraders dubbed the nineteenth century tradition a “colie shangle,” which might have morphed into the name. Or maybe it was a missionary who brought the tradition from China, or a traveling musician who sang about a Shanghai rooster. Who knows? Sometimes the point of a tradition is the tradition itself.
The parade’s lineup starts with “Baby New Year”—usually the city fire chief clad in an oversized diaper and furry slippers. Processing behind him are a fife and drum corps and everything from a herd of llamas in pajamas to horse-drawn carriages to tractors wrapped in Christmas lights. Bringing up the rear, honorary grand marshals—dubbed Super Duper Pooper Scoopers—clean up after the animals. Cash prizes—in addition to the $2 bill—are awarded for a variety of categories, including the best representation of the area’s history and the best-dressed farm equipment.
“We’ve seen guys riding around on lawn mowers, doing formations and figure-eights,” Mann says. “You laugh until you cry. It’s always a delight to stand there and see what people have come up with.”