When tens of thousands of spectators line Salt Lake streets July 24 to cheer one of the nation's biggest parades or watch the extravaganza on television, what is it exactly they will be celebrating?
That is not an easy question. There is no single answer; it obviously varies from person to person. But the question is worth asking, if only quietly to oneself, because it gets to the heart of the holiday.Officially, the Days of '47 parade and associated activities are in honor of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847.
That is a pat, superficial answer. And for some who watch, that's all there is to it. For them, the parade is simply a colorful spectacle that does not strike any deep emotional chords. The holiday is merely a chance to relax or play.
Yet for many, the observance is more than just a recognition of an historic date. For some members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the parade and holiday are a slice of personal history. They have ancestors who made the arduous trek across the plains, including some who died along the way.
Because of the church's emphasis on history and personal journals, the trials and sufferings of those pioneers are not forgotten. In a way seldom equaled anywhere else in a restless, on-the-move America, Mormons tend to personally identify with their history. In some ways, 1847 is not dusty history - it is like yesterday.
For others, the parade and holiday are reminders of the debt owed to others, a chance to acknowledge that all of us stand on the shoulders of those who have been here before us. What we have is not just the result of our own labors, but has been inherited from the work and sacrifices of our predecessors.
For still others, the event is a part of a religious experience, an affirmation of the relative value of things.
Unlike most settlers of the West, the pioneers did not come to the Salt Lake Valley in search of opportunity, new land, or more prosperity. They came for their religious beliefs, leaving behind homes, farms and belongings. They came as persecuted religious refugees for whom spiritual ideals transcended the value of material things.
The Days of '47 parade embodies all of these meanings. Because of such varied and special values, the parade, with its bands and floats and entertainment, is only fun-filled surface glitter. Its real worth lies in what kind of thoughtful response the holiday evokes.
In that sense, the meaning of the holiday is placed right where it belongs - in the mind and conscience of each individual.