Into the Belly of the Best

Stowe world's coldest parade
Main Street, New England: Stowe's Winter Festival (Gretchen Greenhalgh)

At first blush, the notion of standing around in sub-zero temperatures watching a costumed congregation prance by as I try to disregard the onset of frostbite penetrating my toes...well, it struck me as less than enticing. Factor in a long day on the slopes, a hot shower, and a wind-down beverage, and summoning motivation to attend the self-proclaimed World's Coldest Parade was hard to muster. But, as one season pass-holder told me as we ascended Stowe's Mount Mansfield the day before, no matter where you are, you can't escape the coldest day of the year. And, considering that this parade—part of Stowe's Winter Carnival—first started in an effort to quell the winter doldrums, attendance almost seemed mandatory.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then obligation may be the father of surprise. True to its name, it was cold, but the town's volunteer fire department, who were celebrating their 100th anniversary, had positioned fire barrels on both sides of the street to keep the attendants warm. These rings of fire quickly became spots for impromptu fireside chats, where locals and out-of-towners drank free Dunkin' Donuts coffee and mingled with that affable Vermont spirit I'd come to expect after only two days in the state.

Calling it a parade, however, was misleading; with a Main Street that stretches for only four blocks, there's little room for a Rose Bowl-style procession. The route may be modest—the "parade" mostly unfolds on a stage built on the steps of Main Street's Akeley Memorial Building, where costumed cartoon and movie characters strut their stuff before passing balloons out to the children in the crowd—but its century-old legacy makes the event an annual signature. Though it started as a separate entity, the parade is now part of the Stowe Winter Carnival, which first featured ski jumping and tobogganing on a hill behind the public school. In 1935 competitive races became part of the event, and now the festival has evolved into a nine-day affair with as many as 19 events, from ice-sculpting contests and a costumed golf tournament to snow volleyball and a 5K snowshoe race.

But if the children's enthusiasm is any indication, the parade is the carnival highlight, and its spirit remains close to its origins. Spider-Man and Chewbacca may be new to the scene, but the sense of community, the true staple of Stowe, is never more evident than as the kids, balloons clutched in gloved hands, cavort with their cartoon idols under the glow of a star-filled winter sky.

The only significant change from the first parade back in 1905? The profusion of sponsor banners stretched across the pillars that flanked the stage. At first glance, it seemed like marketing overkill. I mean, how much does it cost to secure a tank of helium? But once the fireworks started—a spectacular assault of explosions covering the sky—the sponsorship dollars made perfect sense.

One local bragged that, when compared to the town's Fourth of July celebrations, the carnival fireworks amount to a toddler with a sparkler.... If I can get back there this summer, I hope to see if they're right.

For information on next year's Stowe Winter Carnival, and to read more about its history, visit: www.stowewintercarnival.com.


Nathan Borchelt is the lead editor for Away.com

Published: 3 Mar 2005 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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