St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s Day parades fill the streets of Cedar Rapids this weekend

St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin, 2007. — photo by William Murphy

Cedar Rapidians take to the streets this week for their annual St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s day parades. Wear green on Friday and red on Saturday (and maybe a jacket this year), take a break to enjoy some simple pleasures and learn something new about Irish and Czech culture.

St. Patrick’s Day

Post-Parade Celebration

The Armory, lower level of Veterans Memorial Building (50 2nd Ave SE) — Friday, March 17 at 4:30 p.m.

Cedar Rapids has hosted St. Patrick’s Day parades since 1975. The parade has been organized every year since 1978 by a non-profit called the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Society, or SaPaDaPaSo (a name allegedly conceived on a cocktail napkin in 1977). All floats in the parade must have an Irish theme.

St Patrick’s Day has both religious and cultural significance, celebrating the saint as well as Irish heritage more generally. The celebration began as a 17th century religious feast honoring St. Patrick, a 5th century bishop and missionary and patron saint of Ireland.

Patrick was born in Britain, kidnapped by Irish pirates, found God during six years of shepherding in Ireland and left to become a priest, then returned to convert the Irish. He is known for driving snakes out of Ireland, which some say is a metaphor for driving out druidic paganism, as there haven’t been snakes in Ireland for thousands of years. Patrick is also said to have used the three-leaved shamrock to explain the holy trinity to the Irish, leading to its symbolic connection with the holiday. His story is recorded in The Confessions of St. Patrick.

St. Patrick’s Day was declared a public holiday in Ireland in 1903. However, the first recorded St. Patrick’s Day parade was actually held in New York City in 1762 by Irish soldiers in the British army.

Every year before the Cedar Rapids parade, a panel of judges chooses an Irish Colleen from among those nominated by SaPaDaPaSo members to preside over the festivities. The Colleen is a young woman of Irish descent, chosen based on a questionnaire and photo. She rides in the parade, helps distribute awards afterwards and acts as hostess at the SaPaDaPaSo Hooley, a fundraiser held in early March. SaPaDaPaSo also raises money for the parade through $1 button sales.

The SaPaDaPaSo parade after party will be held at the Veterans Memorial Building. — photo by Paul Sableman

There will be a free post-parade party at the Veterans Memorial Building, with food and drink for purchase and a DJ. A panel of judges, made up of local celebrities and elected officials, will present post-parade awards. Categories include Most Wholesome/Heartfelt Entry, Best Irish-Themed Entry, Pat Fitzpatrick “Irish Eyes” Memorial Award for Most Creative Entry and Best Bribe.

Cedar Rapids is getting notice for its festivities, as well: The website WalletHub ranked the city fourth in its listing of “Best Cities for St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations” for 2017, released last week.

St. Joseph’s Day

St. Joseph’s Day Parade

4th St SE, 16th Ave SE and C St in Czech Village — Saturday, March 18 at 1 p.m.

Thousands of Czech immigrants have made their homes in Cedar Rapids since the 1870s, and that heritage is celebrated at the St. Joseph’s Day parade each March. The holiday itself is March 19, but this year’s parade will be held the day before.

St. Joseph’s Day, or the Feast of St. Joseph, honors Joseph, husband of the virgin Mary and stepfather of Jesus Christ in the Christian tradition. He is the patron saint of people named Joseph and Josephine, who are also celebrated on this day. The Czech version, Josef, used to be one of the most common Czech names, which led to the popularity of St. Joseph’s Day celebrations in that part of the world, according to the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids.

The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids. — photo by Mark Goebel

In the Czech Republic, St. Joseph’s Day was historically observed much the same way as any other major saint’s day, with mass followed by festive gatherings where people dine together and dance to traditional music. In Cedar Rapids, the holiday has taken on the additional dimension of celebrating Czech identity.

Blend in by wearing red clothing to the parade, a St. Joseph’s Day tradition similar to the green of St. Patrick’s day. The color has added significance for Czechs, as it is also their national color.


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Consider heading to the parade a little early, and explore the variety of businesses in the Czech Village area, where shops and restaurants damaged by the past decade’s floods have come back strong.

Grab some kolaches from Sykora Bakery (a Cedar Rapids institution since 1903) and go on a treasure hunt through the neighborhood’s shops, like the Czech Cottage, which specializes in Czech and Slovak products. Or visit the National Czech and Slovak Museum for a deeper understanding of the people that contributed so much to Cedar Rapids.

After walking off the kolaches, stop into Village Meat Market and Cafe for traditional Czech fare like schnitzel and goulash. Those aiming for authenticity can skip the schnitzel — St. Joseph’s Day meals are traditionally meatless.

A community center’s St. Joseph’s Day altar in Louisiana. — photo by Billy Brown

While Joseph has been celebrated on a variety of calendar days throughout history, the March 19 celebration originated in Italy in the 15th century. Joseph is the patron saint of Sicily, so St. Joseph’s Day celebrations are common in Italian-American communities; some of the largest take place in New York and New Orleans.

Joseph is said to have answered medieval prayers for rain, growing the fava beans that saved Sicily from famine. Fava beans are common on Sicilian St. Joseph’s Day altars, and there is a tradition of feeding the needy on that day, so leftover food is sometimes shared with the poor. Altars also include flowers, candles, pictures of St. Joseph, wine, lemons, baked goods (especially sfingi or zeppole) and dishes containing breadcrumbs to symbolize the sawdust associated with Joseph’s carpentry. Altars are often three-tiered, representing the holy trinity, or the ascent to heaven. Spain, Portugal and Italy celebrate the holiday as Father’s Day, and it is also celebrated in the Philippines and Malta.

The Cedar Rapids parade kicks off at 1 p.m. in the NewBo district at 4th St SE. Trophies for first, second and third place parade entry winners will be awarded approximately 15 minutes after the end of the parade, at the Kosek Bandstand in Czech Village.

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