Want to celebrate Alexandria’s biggest holiday weekend but don’t know where to start? Dinna fash yersel! (That’s Scottish for don’t worry.) Sure, there are more than a dozen holiday events in Alexandria December 4-6, 2015, but the number one must-see is the Scottish Christmas Walk Parade. On December 5 at 11 a.m., Old Town Alexandria will welcome more than 20,000 parade-goers with the bellow of bagpipes and the beat of drums as over a hundred marching units—including Scottish clans, dancers, dignitaries, Scottie dogs and more—head to Market Square to salute our bonny town’s rich Scottish heritage.
So what do you need to know before you go? We spoke with Saint Andrew’s Society member and Scottish Christmas Walk Parade announcer Dave McKenzie about clan rivalry, the meaning behind the tartan, and the real mystery—just what are they wearing under those kilts? Keep reading to find your guide to Alexandria’s holiday heritage weekend!
Who are the people marching in the parade?
Image credit: R Kennedy for Visit Alexandria
Many different people march in the parade—including a pair from the North Pole—but the ones you see in Scottish dress have a special connection to Scotland, and to Alexandria. Many are members of the Saint Andrew’s Society, which originated in Alexandria in the late 1700s.
To be a member of Saint Andrew’s, you must have “one foot in Scotland,” Dave says, or in other words, confirmed Scottish lineage. Some members are recent immigrants to the United States who are connected to the British Embassy (since Scotland is part of the United Kingdom). Others have Scottish ancestry as close as two or three generations back. For example, Dave’s paternal grandfather and grandmother came to the U.S. from Scotland and his maternal ancestors immigrated to America from Scotland in the early 1600s.
Why do they march in the parade?
Alexandria’s Scottish Christmas Walk is the summit of Scottish activity in the region for the year, Dave says: “It’s like a giant family picnic.” In the parade, Scottish immigrants and descendents march to the tune of their cultural and genealogical heritage. It’s a way to feel connected with a faraway home and with the ancestors some clan members never got to meet.
The parade is also a chance to give back: proceeds from participation fees benefit the Campagna Center, Alexandria’s leading not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing educational and social development programs for children, teens, and adults.
And why Alexandria?
Image credit: R. Kennedy for Visit Alexandria
For several reasons, Alexandria is the perfect place for the Scottish Walk. First, Alexandria is steeped in Scottish history—in 1749 it was officially established by Scottish merchants and named after John Alexander. Those merchants were also members of the Saint Andrew’s Society in its early days. (One of them, William Hunter, is buried behind the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, and before each parade members place a wreath on his grave.)
But Alexandria has an even closer connection to Scotland—we have little pieces of it in our streets! During the 18th century, when Alexandria was a major seaport, Scottish merchants sailed to the city with stone in the bellies of their boats for ballast. Upon arrival, the ships dumped the stones in the streets to open up their vessel for goods. Legend has it that Old Town’s cobblestone streets still contain ballast from those Scottish ships. For someone like Dave McKenzie, walking our streets is one way to revisit his ancestral homeland.
What does the tartan signify?
Centuries ago in feudal Scotland, the weave or pattern of a tartan (plaid) revealed who your family was, the person you were married to or who you were subservient to. Today things are a little different, but the main idea is the same: your tartan is your way to celebrate your family’s heritage.
What are those furry fanny packs they wear around their waists?
Image credit: R Nowitz for Visit Alexandria
Look closely during the parade, and you’ll see that many of the men clad in Scottish regalia carry what looks like a small, furry fanny pack. Nope, this isn’t the latest trend in men’s wear (although maybe it should be), but those furry bags actually serve a very practical purpose. Called sporrans, the purse worn around the waist came about because traditionally, kilts do not have pockets. So what might you find inside those woolly wallets? Most likely money, credit cards and cell phones.
What are they wearing under the kilts?
Traditionally, Scotsmen wore nothing under the kilt, apart from long shirts tied in a knot between their legs. So…if a wearer keeps tradition, no boxers or briefs are worn under the kilt…and Dave leaves it at that.
What’s going on with all the dogs in the parade?
Image credit: R Kennedy for Visit Alexandria
You’ll see many dogs in the parade who proudly march in honor of their Scottish ancestors, including a host of Scottie dogs. But you’ll also spy dogs in the parade who are just happy to support a good cause—and who’s complaining about that?
Is there a rivalry?
There are quite a few clans who march in the parade who share longstanding rivalries. According to Dave, the rivalry is friendly and a source of many jokes, but when Scots get together—and have absorbed a couple glasses of Scotch—the rivalry never fails to come up. In Dave’s words, “We forgive, but we remember.”
Other Christmas Walk Weekend Events
December 4, 2015, 6:30 p.m.
George Washington Masonic Memorial Temple
All this Scottish history got you thirsty for a wee dram? Book your ticket to the Campagna Center’s Taste of Scotland event, when you can sample varieties of Scotches and other Scottish spirits and lift a glass to our city’s founding fathers.
December 4-5, 2015, Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.
You know what they say: Put a wreath on it! But seriously, there’s no better way to catch the holiday spirit than with fresh heather bundles, wreaths, or garlands in your home or office.
December 5, 2015, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.
Old Town Alexandria
If you want to know the real meaning of “decked out,” take a stroll through some of Old Town Alexandria’s historic homes in all their holiday splendor for some serious decoration inspiration.
December 4-6, 2015
305 Madison St.
The Art League helps kick off the holiday season with an annual art celebration and open house featuring exhibits, live music, artist demonstrations, and refreshments, as well as a weekend-long ceramics and jewelry sale of handmade wares by Art League students and associates.
December 5, 2015, 5:30 p.m.
Alexandria’s waterfront at the foot of Cameron Street near the Torpedo Factory Art Center
At sundown on the day of the Scottish Christmas Walk parade, Alexandria’s harbor lights up as dozens of illuminated boats cruise the Potomac River at the historic waterfront, led by Alexandria’s fireboat The Vigilant and Washington, DC’s fireboat John Glenn. DC media personality Tommy McFly of 94.7 Fresh FM will be the parade announcer. At the marina before and after the parade, stop in to the Holiday Festival: Take a Walk in the Woods at the Torpedo Factory Art Center between 4 and 9 p.m. to enjoy performances by the Alexandria Harmonizers plus gift shopping in open artist studios.
December 5, 2015, 4-9 p.m.
Torpedo Factory Art Center
Note to Santa: I want a piece of local art this Christmas, and the Torpedo Factory Open House is the perfect place to find it. With live music and special activities, the Torpedo Factory is also the perfect place to pop in on your way to or from the Boat Parade of Lights!
To everyone coming out for Alexandria’s holiday heritage weekend, ha a guid journay, hae a guid rin, and don’t forget to use #SCWW15 and #ExtraordinaryALX on your photos! For more information about Alexandria’s 45th Annual Scottish Christmas Walk Weekend & Parade, visit the Campagna Center’s website or click here for a full list of Alexandria holiday events.
Header image by Richard Nowitz for Visit Alexandria