SAVANNAH — Thousands of gaudy green revelers Saturday crammed the oak-shaded squares and sidewalks of downtown Savannah for the St. Patrick’s Day celebration that’s a 189-year-old tradition in Georgia’s oldest city.
Led by bagpipers in green kilts, the parade kicked off just after 10 a.m. and snaked through the streets with more than 300 floats, marching bands, military units marching in formation and dignitaries in convertibles decorated with shamrocks.
Thirsty customers began lining up at downtown bars not long after sunrise, while more than 1,000 worshippers packed the pews of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist for the traditional St. Patrick’s Day Mass that precedes the parade.
Bev Kehayes of Greensboro, N.C., joined friends at Lafayette Square near the start of the parade route. She made special hats festooned with green feathers and flowers just for the occasion.
“It’s good clean fun. Heaven forbid there’s a little alcohol involved,” said Kehayes, who says she’s missed only three St. Patrick’s celebrations in Savannah in the past 29 years.
Started in 1824 by early Irish immigrants to Georgia, the parade has ballooned into a sprawling street party that makes for Savannah’s most profitable tourism event. Hotels across the city are jam-packed, and bars and restaurants count on the celebration to fill their cash registers with green.
The parade also has deep religious roots for Savannah families of Irish descent. The parade’s grand marshal, third-generation Savannahian Jimmy Ray, paused in front of the cathedral near the start of the procession to receive the traditional blessing from Bishop Gregory J. Hartmayer, the leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah.
“This is a great honor,” Ray said as he knelt to receive his blessing in front of the towering, Gothic church.
Of course, St. Patrick’s Day officially falls on March 17, which is Sunday. But Savannah and other cities with big celebrations such as New York and Chicago held their parades Saturday.
That’s also a longstanding Savannah tradition. Local Catholic church leaders have discouraged Sunday parades and the revelry they attract. The arrangement is preferred by bar owners as well, who by state law can’t open on Sunday if most of their revenues come from booze rather than food.
Kehayes and her friend Sara Farnsworth joined more than 200 people, a mixture of local families and visitors, who camp out every year in Lafayette Square. It was only Farnsworth’s second time in Savannah for the parade.
“It’s chaotic and fun,” she said. “It’s amazing how much people get into the spirit of things and the wonderful green clothes.”
Few were in the spirit more than Kehayes. She brought four boxes containing more than 700 strands of green beads to pass out during the parade. Never mind the metal barricades police erect trying to keep the crowd from mingling too much with the actual parade.
“To bead is a verb, and I bead people who have good attitudes and are smiling, or I may give them to a line of military guys,” Kehayes said. “I consider this an audience participation parade, even though the police don’t always think of it that way.”