Parades in Maine don’t typically differ too much from town to town these days, whether it’s for Memorial Day, the Fourth of July or some other holiday. They include homemade floats, school marching bands, politicians, veterans, lots of kids, sometimes animals, and usually police and fire departments blaring their sirens. It’s very homegrown, and it’s very sweet.
Once upon a time, however, Mainers participated in a kind of parade that had its roots in the mid-19th century, where dressing up in weird, grotesque or satirical costumes was a yearly tradition: the parade of horribles.
Today, only a few towns in Maine and New England still celebrate the practice, but just a few generations back the parade of horribles — less commonly called a parade of fantastics — was as common as modern-day pancake breakfasts and fireworks.
Unlike a traditional parade, the horrible parade was a chance for townsfolk to blow off some steam and poke a little fun at local muckety-mucks and news items of the era. People would put together elaborate, sometimes bizarre costumes, and parade with their neighbors down the main drag, showing off their creativity and offering a little satire for spectators to cheer at.
The tradition actually has its roots in Massachusetts, dating back to around the 1850s. The story goes that the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts would hold a parade in Boston each summer honoring high-ranking military officers and politicians. The working-class residents of nearby Lowell scoffed at those snooty blue bloods parading through the streets, and decided to hold their own parade, dubbed the “Ancient and Horrible,” making fun of the fancy folk. A tradition was born.
It quickly spread throughout New England, with each town putting their own spin on it. By the late 19th century, the horrible parade was fully entrenched in Maine culture, either on the Fourth or on another holiday.
Some towns turned it into more of a family-friendly affair, encouraging children to put on cute costumes and holding the parades in the morning. Towns from Caribou to Machias to Belfast had “horrible” Fourths, and Bar Harbor’s legendary Fourth of July parade was, up until the middle of the 20th century, themed as a parade of horribles, before becoming the more traditional affair it is today.
Other towns got a little more unruly, holding their parades in the evening, with the event being more of a party, with plenty of alcohol and fireworks. It was a lot easier to feign innocence for disturbing the peace if you were dressed up like a monster or a clown — or as an exaggerated, grotesque version of the mayor or governor.
Interestingly, one of the reasons Maine had a ban on fireworks for so many years was due in part to the rowdiness of these Fourth of July celebrations. By the time the temperance movement was in full swing in the early 1900s, the literally combustible combination of explosives and booze was one of the things prohibition supporters pointed to as a reason to ban them both.
They’d also be held to mark big events, such as centennial celebrations of town foundings, or for the Maine centennial in 1920, in which a huge horrible parade was held in Portland. And when Halloween customs like trick or treating and costumes became popular in the United States in the 1910s, the horrible parade began to be held around Halloween, with Bangor holding a particularly popular Halloween horrible parade in the 1950s and 1960s.
By the 1980s, however, the tradition had begun to die out. Towns including Cutler and Calais held them up until the 1990s, and Eastport’s parade of horribles, the “Callithumpian” parade, was held as recently as 2004 before it too ended — though Eastport’s annual pirate festival in September does continue a bit of the rowdy tradition.
Today, the town of Boothbay still holds a parade of horribles in the Ocean Point area each July 4, and Castine holds a children’s costume parade on the Fourth that is a direct descendent of a more rowdy horrible parade held in earlier decades. Outside of Maine, horrible parades are found in several Massachusetts towns, including Hyannis, Mendon, Hopkinton and Beverly, the latter of which stirred up controversy in 2016 when some parade participants had some racist and transphobic floats and costumes.
Step outside of New England, however, and parades of horribles are virtually unknown. It’s barely even known here, since most of the parades have gone by the wayside over the past 50 years. Perhaps another Maine town will try to bring it back, and help carry on a nearly 200-year tradition rooted in dressing up in funny costumes and poking good-natured fun at each other.