Joe Shumard has organized every George Washington Birthday Parade in Alexandria since 1998 and whenever the first president’s birthday coincides with a winter storm, as it has this year, he wishes for the sake of convenience that re-writing history were an option.
But this year’s parade, the biggest celebration of Washington’s life in the country, has become a victim of the present. Scheduled for Monday, it has been cancelled along with most of the major events planned by the George Washington Birthday Celebration Committee.
“We always wished that Washington had either been born or died in the spring, or a nice warm month,” Shumard said. “We have done everything we can to figure out a time in Washington’s life that we could celebrate that was not in the dead of winter. But it’s just impossible. He died in the dead of winter and he was born in the dead of winter, so we’re kind of stuck with winter for Washington.”
Shumard made the decision Monday after speaking with city officials manning the emergency hub that orchestrates the city’s disaster relief efforts. It would have taken special resources, they said, in addition to the normal resources police presence, for instance that the city provides for the parade each year.
“I think it was a sensible decision,” Shumard said. “It was a decision that we on the George Washington Birthday Celebration Committee really looked upon as citizens of the city and considered how we wanted our resources to be allocated.”
The parade is not just a celebration of the hometown president’s life but a celebration of the city’s identity. As the largest single-day event in Alexandria, it is also a revenue booster for the city’s businesses by virtue of the estimated 50,000 people attending each year, according to Shumard.
While the city will save about $35,000 this year by cancelling the event, restaurants and other Old Town businesses and city coffers by proxy will not benefit from Washington’s birthday this year as they have in years past.
“There is a general hope among the businesses that once the weather breaks, cabin fever is really going to end and people will want to go out and shop and dine,” said Merrie Morris of the Alexandria Convention and Visitor’s Association, which promotes the parade. “So even though that doesn’t really serve the purposes of the parade committee, because I feel really bad for them, we do hope that the businesses will see a recovery.”
Shumard said the upfront costs of planning the parade, which took 10 months, are minimal hats and other celebratory trinkets and that all of its planners are volunteers at no cost to the city government.
This year’s cancellation is only the third one in memory. Winter storms cancelled the parade in 1979 and again in 2003, both times because of historic storms that hit the region. However, the Birthnight Banquet and Ball, which has been celebrated since Washington was still alive, will still occur on Saturday at Gadsby’s Tavern Museum at 5:30 p.m. The committee will still announce the winners of the “Cherry Challenge” for restaurants as well, but all other events, like the George Washington Classic 10k run, are cancelled.
“We’re George Washington’s home town and we want to celebrate his birthday,” Shumard said, “but I don’t even think Washington himself would want us to have to go through what would be necessary to hold the parade under these circumstances.”