A theme for the parade determines the floats, the costumes, the music and the colors. It's a point of focus that shifts a carnival-like event away from chaos and toward enough structure to make the parade a success. Count on national holidays, such as Independence Day or Thanksgiving, to inspire major parades. Smaller communities around the U.S. stage traditional parades around local celebrations, such as the annual watermelon harvest fest or the Coney Island Mermaid Parade, based loosely on mythology and mostly on summer beach culture.

Patriotic Parades

A Dalmatian sits on top of a fire engine.
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Fourth of July is its own excuse for a parade, and almost every community across the country has one. Step back from the annual Yankee Doodle theme to incorporate the local heroes with the sacred ritual of the backyard barbecue. A "Blaze of Glory" or "All Fired Up" theme features floats with flaming barbecues, tended by members of the Volunteer Fire Department in full regalia. A shiny hook-and-ladder following the themed flatbed seals the deal, especially when the firehouse Dalmatian mascot is riding shotgun on the front seat. Break out a few muskets with marching, costumed Continental soldiers and the pride of the local high school marching band; you will foment a grassroots revolution if the usual participants aren't included.

Happy Harvest

A garden trolley decorated for Halloween.
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High-step it with spooks or ghosts down Main Street on Halloween, when a parade is a chance to show off clever costumes and scare the daylights out of pint-size observers. "March of the Undead" gives you that ever-popular zombie apocalypse vibe. "Haunted Habitats" expands the float possibilities from spooky old houses to gloomy moss-draped swamps or the shores of the River Styx. Thanksgiving is an altogether more upbeat and optimistic holiday, with its cliched marching Pilgrims and Pocahontases or the mishmash of school bands and twirlers. Pull it together with a "Squash Stroll," showcasing every kind of pumpkin at the local pick-and-pay, marching in colorful gourd costumes and heaped in papier-mache pyramids on hay wagons pulled by horses. Don't forget to costume the sweeper. "Mayflower to Horsepower" celebrates America's love affair with transportation, from a ship float to an antique cars parade. Fill in the gaps with old bi-planes and daredevils on penny-farthing or boneshaker bikes.

Ethnic Extravaganzas

People wearing leprechaun hats.
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A visit to the "Emerald Isle" is a theme to promote the wearing of the green on St. Patrick's Day, when leprechauns and bagpipes get dusted off for a raucous parade. "Dragons Dancing" and "Lucky Lions" bring traditional dances and good fortune to parade-goers in Chinatowns during the Lunar New Year celebrations. Communities with large immigrant populations fuse the old country with the new, with American and international flags, indigenous music and costumes, and a teenage parade queen. Sidewalk vendors sell savory foods just like mama used to make -- from pupusas to kimchi. “Un Pueblo, Muchas Voces”/“One Nation, Many Voices” was the NYC Puerto Rican Day parade theme in 2014. The Carnaval San Francisco summer street parade offers up a potpourri of ethnicities, from Caribbean "Sistahs Wit Style" to Brazilian dance troupe "Fogo Na Roupa" -- the name means “Clothes on Fire” -- and its winning 2014 "25 Years of Fire" theme.

U-Pick Parades

People dressed in costume on a Mardi Gras themed float.
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Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans are no-holds-barred blowouts, night after night until the big finale. Many of the crewes rely on a literary theme, with floats and costumes representing scenes from a well-known myth or story. High school and college homecoming parades might be based on the athletic exploits of the home team, or a king and queen fairy tale. "Winter Wonderland," "North Pole" or "Nutcracker" themes will all wind up with a fat man in a red suit waving from a sleigh. "All You Need is Love" is about hearts, flowers, XOXOs and cupids on floats that look like fancy chocolates boxes. "Give My Regards to Broadway" could open the annual summer stock season with costumed players from the upcoming shows.

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