The Greenfield Holiday Parade has two constants: fireworks and Santa Claus.
Last year's parade culminated with Santa — hanging off the back of what appeared to be a repurposed ambulance celebrating Pittsburgh as five-time Stanley Cup winners — encountering a “Thriller”-era Michael Jackson wearing a sequined jacket. As Jackson moonwalked past a chiropractor’s office in the middle of Greenfield Avenue, Santa gave him a tah-dah flourish. It was a good rejoinder to a 10-foot-tall masked creature in flowing robes and a Statue of Liberty-style crown (actually a giant puppet by artist Cheryl Capezzuti) who’d just glided by handing out candy to onlookers.
The holiday parade is invariably lively, members of the Greenfield Community Association (GCA), who coordinate it and other neighborhood events, tell Pittsburgh City Paper. Even among local winter holiday celebrations, the parade is unique, taking place on the first Friday in December at night — a time otherwise reserved for Light Up Night — and closing with fireworks. Launched from Magee Field with just enough setback from houses, the full-scale fireworks show is a rarity within city limits in being permitted outside Downtown or the stadiums in a residential neighborhood.
The Greenfield Holiday Parade also boasts longevity. This year's event on Fri., Dec. 1 will be the parade’s 30th annual after canceling in 2020 due to the pandemic.
Aside from filling out an optional form beforehand, no fees or special permission are required to participate. Any person or business can walk, make a float, or drive the parade route from Squirrel Hill Plaza at Murray and Hazelwood Avenues, down the main drag of Greenfield Avenue to Lydia Street.. Parade regulars include marching bands — GCA considers a “full” complement to be three bands, and one year it pulled in the Lawrenceville drum corps — Girl Scout troops, police on horseback, and neighborhood businesses, many of which give out candy and prizes or coupons and flyers to draw customers.
Anchor Physical Therapy on Greenfield Avenue has reportedly participated in every holiday parade for 30 years, tossing out candy from the back of a boat — “a boat float,” Jones says, a play on the clinic’s name. Businesses also stay open to hand out hot chocolate, another parade staple. And the whole procession is emceed nearly every year by WQED host Michael Bartley from the steps of Edward P. Kanai Funeral Home, which has operated on Greenfield Avenue — longtime residents simply call it “the Avenue” — since 1944.
Aside from GCA’s organization of the parade, a fair number of people just show up, many in costume, giving it a Mardi Gras spirit and a sense of being unbidden and organic.
“That’s one word for it,” says Patrick Hassett with a laugh. “I like to describe it as the antithesis of the Macy's Day Parade.”
Hassett, formerly part of GCA’s Board of Directors and a Greenfield resident since 1989, has been to every parade. Now retired, he hosts a “hot chocolate party” at his house on the Avenue, celebrating with a primo view of the parade from his porch 10 feet above.
“The more the merrier, we say,” adds Jones. “We’re definitely hoping to catch that weird Greenfield spirit and, hopefully, that will continue … it’s very downhome and yet yinzer at the same time.”
Started in 1993 with late mayor Bob O’Connor, then a Pittsburgh city councilman, the parade was originally an effort to boost Greenfield’s businesses. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the idea arose after two shopping plazas on Beechwood Boulevard had vacant storefronts and the neighborhood wanted to shake up its reputation.
“To make the family atmosphere more visible than ever this year, a merchants group known as Businesses in Greenfield is preparing its first-ever holiday parade and light display through the neighborhood,” the 1993 Post-Gazette article read. For several years, the parade was also billed as Greenfield’s own Light Up Night, and Jones and Hassett say they still make an effort to hang recently purchased LED Christmas lights (prior to that, wreaths) on streetlights in tandem with the parade.
Today, Hassett says, the vision has expanded and “it’s both a community and a business event.” The parade is an excellent time, he and Jones say, to celebrate and embrace new businesses like the soon-to-be-opened Necromancer Brewing location or Murray Avenue independent bookstore Stories Like Me.
Allegheny County Controller Corey O’Connor, son of the late Bob O’Connor, tells City Paper that beyond the holiday cheer the parade is “just a great way to honor the neighborhood,” showcasing “the type of pride people have in Greenfield.” The family has deep Greenfield roots, and Corey O’Connor remembers visiting five uncles — “all the O'Connor boys,” including Uncle Buddy who lived atop the hill on Lydia Street — and an aunt in the neighborhood. He walked in the first-ever holiday parade as a 9-year-old, and recalls being awed by Rose Lucchino — mother of former Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino and retired judge Frank Lucchino — driving down the Avenue in a convertible.
His father, he says, was the biggest evangelist for the fireworks, and personally funded them for years.
“He was an old-school Pittsburgher [who] just thought fireworks made an event even better,” O’Connor says. “And especially [being] from Greenfield, I know he took pride in saying, yeah, Greenfield, we got fireworks for our parade.”
In taking over the mantle and working with the GCA to fund the parade as a city councilman himself, one year O’Connor and the group “couldn't figure out how to get the fireworks” in time. He says Sen. Jay Costa — another loyal paradegoer — still teases him about ruining Christmas that year.
O’Connor now appears in the parade annually.
“It’s like a homecoming party,” he says. “When I come around the bend, I know I'm going to shake certain people’s hands at certain corners.”
Over 30 years, the parade has grown into a multi-generational event, and “I think that makes it a family tradition,” says O’Connor, who walks with his two young children. “Friends come in who might not live in the neighborhood anymore just for the parade … It’s become a thing that everybody goes to.”
One year, Jones took her 1-year-old daughter, who walked the route in a fluffy bear costume.
“It was probably one of the most joyous things,” she remembers. “The older folks, you could just hear squeals from watching [her] walk down the Avenue.”
Hassett says seeing people willing to come out gives him hope for the parade’s future.
“They understand that the community in Greenfield is Greenfield because people have been supporting it,” Hassett tells CP. “With the parade, they get to see what that can do for the neighborhood.”