Where are you located?

The Parade happens ideally two Saturdays prior to Christmas, in Liberty Lands Park, which is around Third and Poplar Streets in Philadelphia.

How did you get your original idea or concept for The Parade?

When we started doing Parade, there was only one other city in the US that did a Krampus event, and that was Portland, Oregon. I had watched what they were doing from afar (on Facebook) and although what I wanted to do was more kid-friendly, the Portland organizer (Arun Once-Was-Zygoat) and I got along so well and meshed in so many other ways that I felt we were planning sister events on opposite sides of the country. That was in 2011, and at that time we were “just” a Krampus event, at a time where you had to explain to pretty much anybody who and what Krampus was — that’s hardly the case now! It seems that every big city has a Krampus event, and there is merchandise in stores like Target… he’s just everywhere.

I knew that just from the creativity of the original crowd we were working with, there wasn’t anything productive or fun in telling people that dressing as Krampus or anything related to Krampus was a “rule” of the event — people were going to come up with their own ideas — and when we decided to officially change the name of the event to Parade of Spirits, it made it even easier for people to do that. Regardless of the trendiness of Krampus, I don’t think anyone involved in Parade of Spirits feels affected by it, since anyone involved could be thinking of some different folklore entirely — whether it is something from their own heritage (we have a steady Pennsylvania Dutch contingent) or something that they were interested in and wanted to anthropomorphize (my daughter was an amethyst geode this last year).

Parade of Spirits photo by Neil KohlWhat is your company mission?

Overall, I think we give people something to look forward to and concentrate on outside of the commercialism and emotional pressure of secular Christmas. I have spoken to so many people who take Parade of Spirits on for themselves as a personal ritual and are processing very private issues. That said, the only rules we have ever enforced is that the event is not an “entertainment” event and that anyone who comes is responsible for their own fun and some of someone else’s; this does not mean you have to perform or do anything uncomfortable to you, but it also means there’s not much you can expect by coming and standing with your arms folded waiting for someone to put on a show for you. And, because we have so many monsters — Krampus still figures heavily into the event, he’s always there in a number of forms — we insist that any child giving a clear signal that they do not want to be scared, be respected. Back off and go play with somebody else. There are always plenty of kids who do enjoy taunting and running from Krampus, or just approaching him. It’s easy enough to steer clear of the ones who want nothing to do with him. (I’ve personally never seen a crying child at our event — although I see crying children in the Santa line every year at Macy’s.)

What role do you play and what skills did you bring into your company?

I am a good sheepdog and a good project manager. When it comes to workshops, group building projects — I am good at nudging people. I’m also good at helping connect people who will enjoy working together and often my favorite things about Parade are the things I had no idea were coming — the costume I never saw or had any part in the planning of. But I don’t have any goals for anyone else to meet when it comes to Parade — I don’t need it to be a certain size or the “best one ever” or the “biggest one ever” — in fact, I’d be pretty happy to think we’d already passed our biggest one ever, as there was a year we hit what was possibly close to 500 people and that was too much — but I do tend to look at it as data collection. Whatever happens at Parade from year to year tells me something about the people that are there and what they are getting out of it, and since it’s not a commercial experience, it’s a community experience, there’s only so much I can do to guide that. It takes care of itself.

How do the majority of your customers find you now?

It is still baffling to me when I see a post on social media from someone who says they have been coming to Parade for years and it is one of their favorite Philly things and this turns out to be no one involved with the park, or the fire dancers, and someone we’ve not met at all! The only social media we use is Facebook, and we print fifty posters, most of which go around to neighborhood businesses or get saved for friends who want them as souvenirs; we don’t do much in the way of promotion. Word of mouth, I suppose.

Where are the majority of your customers coming from?

I have to presume most people come from at least NEAR Philly, although I have a friend who has driven through the night from Athens, Georgia, twice to come to Parade, and friends who have come twice from Pittsburgh.

Parade of Spirits photo by Neil KohlWho has been your biggest inspiration and why?

At Parade we see more costuming than we do large puppets, although we never know when that could change. I really do love large puppets and would welcome anybody who wanted to start building them out of anything into my living room immediately. A lot of “big puppet groups”, however, look very similar to me; a few that don’t, which I really admire, are Paperhand Puppet Intervention, and Snuff Puppets (definitely, nothing looks like Snuff puppets.) When it comes to inspiration and how really hard just *wearing a costume* can BE — there is a beautiful TED talk that I watch again and again, by Adam Savage called “My Love Letter to Cosplay” that talks about the real physical discomfort that comes from, well, being a magical thing, even temporarily.

Where do you see your business in the next year? In the next five years? The next ten years?

I don’t think I make this decision. At the end of last year’s Parade — which was really beautiful, and had all kinds of special personal moments to me, because my daughter gave a beautiful invocation in Latin, and my son was part of the fire dance routine — I was also pretty sure that the whole thing could have gone on without me, and at least 80% of the people there would not necessarily have noticed my absence. Every year I get something specific in my own mind that keeps me interested in continuing — something that I think other people will find beautiful, and be able to interact with — and I try to bring as much of it to the event as is possible. Sometimes this manifests as someone else building something that I barely have anything to do with, but might have just suggested. I’m thrilled that photographers like Neil Kohl and Rich Wexler have been able to do such interesting work at Parade — it’s not hard to take a good picture of an event that gives you a setting and models for free, but both of them have done much more with it than just that and done work that other photographers could not have duplicated.

Parade of Spirits photo by Neil KohlIn 2016 I spoke at a conference about Winter Festivals and Traditions at Oxford University, specifically on the topic of processional arts and neurodiversity — specifically, what made events like Parade of Spirits (or, specifically Parade of Spirits) tolerable or intolerable for people on the autism spectrum. Because accommodation for neuro┬ádivergence is one representation of the future for me — and in a really, REALLY broad list of things that represent the future, so are improved LEDs and wireless musical instruments — these things started to blend together in my mind. What makes “participation” in events like a parade a zero-sum game — where you have go be in attendance to be part of it? What if there’s another way to be part of it, if the sensory issues of the actual travel, parking, crowds, etc., would make it too difficult to do otherwise? And what about things that light up, things that make music? Even in Parade of Spirits, some of our light comes from actual flame. But we are always scouring the web for new and better LEDs for our lanterns, and that aesthetic isn’t at odds with the folk-revival feel that Parade of Spirits has. And the term “Folkfuturism” keeps appearing in my head. But it’s not a thing I can make happen — it’s just a direction I see things moving, or a direction I would happily follow, if things looked like they were moving that way. Folkfuturism sounds exciting!

Parade of Spirits photo by Neil KohlI’ve always felt there would be something important to the history of Parade that it take place once or twice under really reduced or altered conditions. We have done it in a raging blizzard, literally, and that didn’t seem to slow down anyone. we had belly dancers breathing fire in a blizzard. I have a fantasy though, of it happening and there only being maybe five people present. It’s not that I want it ruined for anyone! Or that I want people to drive long distances and be disappointed… I feel like it is part of the journey of Parade to have one incarnation of tininess. I don’t know if this is a hope, or a prediction. I just see it in my mind. I feel like it’s coming and that it will not be a disappointment. I also recognize that while Liberty Lands is a lovely park it is a trek for many and not very wheelchair accessible. When we talk about remote participation for those who have a hard time traveling at all, I realize that remote participation does not just mean one physical location plus virtual locations, or live streaming — it can mean more than one physical location. It can mean surprise locations! I don’t know. Someone else’s enthusiasm will motivate me — that’s almost always what does it.

I am particularly excited to be part of Maker Faire because I am hoping to meet more people interested in costuming and puppet-making and processional arts who know more about circuits and stuff than we do. I don’t think those kinds of advancements need to look “high tech” to bring a greater facility to the costuming, lighting, even the safety of the types of pieces we use now for Parade.

Follow Parade of Spirits, Liberty Land on Facebook and their website.

All photographs by Neil Kohl. Follow him on Instagram.