Days of '47 Parade brings tradition, pageantry, crowds
Culture • Utah's big, annual celebration — called the 'Mormon Mardi Gras' by some — is a time to share and reflect.
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The original Mormon pioneers might not have recognized their descendants in T-shirts and shorts lined up on air mattresses and lounge chairs Wednesday along the route of the Days of '47 Parade in Salt Lake City.

While those early settlers eked out hard winters and hot summers, their modern-day kin lounged under canopies with coolers of food and soft drinks while bands marched by followed by ornate floats and teams of horse riders. Some onlookers even stirred up eggs and bacon and flipped pancakes on hot gas griddles to add a little panache to the annual event that some call the "Mormon Mardi Gras."

Cultures are measured by their traditions and in Utah the biggest celebration of the year falls on July 24 and draws families — particularly Mormons — together from near and far to honor an earlier gathering of saints. It's a time to remember forebears and begin new traditions with extended families along the parade route. And it's a chance to have fun.

Among the campers was Jenny Minichino, of Park City, along with her husband, two kids and a dog.

"All my ancestors were Mormon pioneers, so this makes me think of them and what they went through to get here," she said. "I have a life of luxury because of what they did."

Jennie and Chad Russon served up breakfast for about 70 family and friends along the parade route Wednesday morning, like they've been doing for years.

"That's the way we roll," Jennie said. "It's one of the funnest things we do with our family."

Her father, Lagrand DeWaal, recalled that his great, great grandfather, George D. Grant, led the rescue party that saved the Martin handcart company during the winter of 1856. The Martin band had left Iowa late in the season for Salt Lake City and did not make it through Wyoming before deep winter snows trapped them.

"That pioneer spirit is still alive," DeWaal said.

Sue Fiefia joined up with 20 members ­— four generations — of her extended family along 200 East near 300 South. Her parents immigrated from Tonga in 1990, but Fiefia, too, feels a kinship with the Mormon pioneers and the parade is now her family tradition, as well.

"For us, it's a time to remember the sacrifice they made for us," she said. "And it's a time for us to come together."

And for the younger members of her clan, like her three-year-old granddaughter, Sharese Ete, who laughed and danced to the marching bands and Brigham Young University mascot Cosmo, it's just a good time.

But not everyone at the event has Mormon ancestors. Ande Peden is from the central African nation of Gabon and is working on a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Utah. She had never been to a Days of '47 Parade and isn't Mormon. But she wanted to see what all the fuss was about.

"It's a nice expression of the community," she said of the wide variety of parade entries. "But I don't know much about it."

What she and other parade-goers may not realize is that the July 24 celebration also commemorates the long struggle for statehood that finally succeeded Jan. 4, 1896, when Utah became the 45th state. Utah invited the world to celebrate its statehood at the Pioneer Day festivities the following year in 1897. The gala lasted for a week.

But it wasn't until the centennial Pioneer Day celebration in 1947 that the parade was renamed The Days of '47.

This year, there were 107 entries. Fifty five of them were floats — many built by church and community groups. Also on hand were 13 bands, 21 horse entries and 22 antique cars. Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the LDS Church's governing First Presidency, represented the church as he and his wife Harriet sat waving their hands from a convertible.

Among the most popular parade entries was one sponsored by the Make a Wish Foundation — a convoy of military vehicles, with uniformed service members transporting children armed with plastic water guns. Parade watchers got out of their chairs and off their blankets to clap and cheer them on.

There was, of course, a juggling cowboy on stilts. And spectators also gave props to two men hustling behind the horse entries and shoveling the droppings from the roadway.

The Salt Lake Unified Police and Salt Lake City motorcycle squads drew applause as the members weaved and executed a series of synchronized stunts. One member of the city squad, Officer Colton Lamber, proposed to his girlfriend in the middle of an intersection along the parade route. The crowd also cheered a Polynesian Cultural Center float blasting music amid bubble machines and followed up by colorfully decked-out dancers.

Ulla Christensen, 75, travelled from Reno, Nev., where she is serving an LDS mission, to attend her first Days of '47 Parade on Wednesday.

"I'm very excited to be here for the first time," said the native of Denmark. "I like parades in general, especially the music and the horses."

csmart@sltrib.com