This coming Saturday, February 4th is the Saint Paul Winter Carnival’s Torchlight parade. If you have never been, I highly encourage you to go. I brought my friend, Mary, for the first time last year and this was her review: “This is the strangest parade I have ever been to, but it is the best parade. I don’t know why.”
The Winter Carnival started in 1886 after reporters from the East Coast visited Saint Paul and called it “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation.” Local business owners created the Winter Carnival in retaliation. According to the Winter Carnival website, the founders were lucky that there was a smallpox epidemic in Montreal which allowed them to hire the designer of Montreal’s ice palaces to come to Saint Paul.
Nowadays, the Winter Carnival is a ten-day long festival of winter with ice and snow sculptures, parades, family activities, music, a treasure hunt (worth $10,000!), and many more events. I love the Torchlight Parade because it embodies everything I love about interesting spaces, cities, and Saint Paul.
Interesting Spaces Include the Unexpected
Interesting spaces include the unexpected. It is the hole-in-the wall restaurant, the quirky shop, the unsought for mural, and the interactions with strangers that make a space one I want to return to. The suburban strip mall, the chain restaurant, and the same mix of retail at highway off ramps bore me and do not provide an incentive to return. I have explored the place and it was what I expected. Sometimes this is not a bad thing, but I do not need to go back.
The Torchlight Parade embodies the unexpected. There are certain things that all parades have – candy and plastic necklaces tossed from floats, local royalty consisting of teenage princesses in prom dresses, high school marching bands. The Torchlight parade does not fail to provide these. However, it also has other items tossed (thrown?) at you, like used decks of cards from casinos. The Torchlight Parade is the smell of bourbon and cigars emanating from men in Vulcan costumes. It has fire, lots of fire in the hands of local celebrities with questionable sobriety and old fashioned fire trucks with hot air balloon burners unexpectedly blasting to the second and third story of buildings along 5th Street.
Cities are People
Interesting urban spaces have people. While a quiet walk in the country is restful, in an urban setting people make it interesting. I joke that one of the differences between downtown Minneapolis and Saint Paul is that in Saint Paul, you do not have to look before crossing the street. There just are not many people around.
The Winter Carnival brings in the people. This is especially important in winter when people hustle from heated garage to car and back and congregate in indoor, often private spaces. In the winter it is more difficult to have unexpected interactions in public spaces, like parks, and being out often requires money, the entrance fee to a coffee shop or bar. Nearly all Winter Carnival events are outside and nearly all are free. The Landmark Center hosts a bunch of activities so there is a public space to warm up, but for the most part everything is outside. It creates a sense of community in a time year sorely lacking in public spaces.
It is also when Saint Paul lets her hair down, so to speak. Saint Paul has a reputation for being boring, that we roll up the carpet at 5 p.m. The Winter Carnival is the opposite. The most visible bacchanalia is the Vulcan Krewe, who are not without controversy. The Vulcan Krewe have a reputation for hard partying, driving around for weeks in a drunken haze in their fire trucks. Things changed in 2005 when three female bartenders sued after being assaulted at Alary’s Bar. The partying is still hard, but the lawsuit forced changes in the application process and behavior expectations that no long allow assault. Better behavior and changed expectations notwithstanding, this is still the week for celebration and Vulcans are still a very visible part of the celebration. I know people who used to go to the Parade, but stopped because of the Vulcans. I would encourage them to try it again. The bad parts have changed, but the good parts of the free-for-all atmosphere remain.
Saint Paul: Past and Present
Interesting spaces often tie together the past and past uses of space with today. I love walking through downtown Saint Paul because so many of its buildings escaped the urban renewal projects of the mid-twentieth century. Buildings and spaces that were destroyed in other cities still live in Saint Paul. We like to watch the parade from the same place many families probably watched 100 years ago – the window sills of Sibley Square which was built in 1906.
The Torchlight Parade is tradition and brings the past into relief. The Winter Carnival has an ethos and mystique built around the legend of King Boreas. From the Winter Carnival website:
“A long, long time ago, Astraios, the god of Starlight, and Eos, the goddess of the Rosy Fingered moon, were wed. The union was blessed with five sons: Boreas, Titan, Euros, Zephyrus and Notos. As the eldest, Boreas was granted the title of “King of the Winds.”
As the “King of the Winds,” Boreas assigned to each of his brothers a permanent grant of great force and power. To Titan was assigned the blustery North Wind. To Euros was granted control of the irresponsible East Wind. To Zephyrus was given custody of the bountiful West Wind. To Notos was presented the balmy but unstable South Wind. The brothers cavorted gaily over land and sea. Boreas, while on his extensive travels, came upon a winter paradise known as Minnesota. He paused to behold the enchanting beauty of a magnificent group of seven gently sloping hills in whose embrace nestled a beautiful city. Boreas whistled in sheer ecstasy, “Historic Saint Paul and her seven hills! An ideal place.
I will make Saint Paul the capitol of all my domains. It will henceforth be emblazoned to the world as the winter playground of the Realm of Boreas.”
I love the idea of Saint Paul as the “capitol of all my domains.” At the end of the Parade, Vulcanus Rex and his Krewe storm the castle and King Boreas and winter leave the city in a blaze of fireworks. The fireworks are shot off seemingly too close to the crowd – about 15 feet from where I was standing last year. Ash rained down and singed my hat and I jumped each time a volley was let off.
There is something majestic feeling about standing on 5th Street, with the outline of the Saint Paul Hotel and Hamm Buildings silhouetted in the night sky as 100s of grown men in red costumes rally torches. To me, it feels oddly connected to all the other families that stood along that street, watching the same parade, for 131 years.
I love the Torchlight Parade because of how it helps make downtown Saint Paul into a space I want to be part of. There are always surprises and a bit of serendipity. It ties us to our past. The parade and carnival bring people together and creates space for interaction.
Hopefully we’ll see you there. The parade begins Saturday, February 4th at 5:30 p.m. at 5th and Wacouta and travels westbound down 5th Street to Rice Park. I think the best spots to view it are near Sibley or Jackson Streets. Do not view it from the warmth of the skyway, you will be missing half of the experience.