On July 17, I did the unthinkable — I left Old Hallowell Day early.
For the unenlightened, Old Hallowell Day is the greatest day of the year, at least for my fellow Hallowell residents. For everyone else, it’s the same as every other small town festival in Maine. It has a parade in the morning, craft and food booths, musical acts, various activities and fireworks to top it off.
This year started the same as any. I walked to the parade, weaving through the large crowd already formed along the street, wondering if it’s become more crowded over the years. A beer-bellied man, sweating through his NASCAR shirt, asked his wife if the Liberal Cup was serving alcohol yet. I looked at my cell phone: 9:35 a.m.
It was already too hot to stand in the sun. I stopped to talk to my uncle across from Slates Bakery, finding solace in the shade. The parade was the same as every other parade I’ve ever seen: nothing particularly special.
Later in the afternoon, I get a text from a friend telling me about a free, impromptu show in an RV in downtown Portland by one of our favorite rappers, Astronautalis. He put one of the best shows I’ve seen in awhile several months ago in Portland and I was dying to see him again. My girlfriend, my friend and I decided to drive down that night, missing the rest of Old Hallowell Day. My girlfriend volunteered to drive as I was already a few beers in.
When I told some other friends I was going to Portland, I was met with shock. They couldn’t believe I was leaving Hallowell on Old Hallowell Day. My girlfriend, who is from Dresden, didn’t see what the big deal was — and she had a point. I don’t particularly love any of the individual attractions, but it still seemed wrong. I’ve never missed an Old Hallowell Day I was old enough to remember.
I know why I loved it as a kid. All my friends were there and we were free to roam through downtown. People threw us candy at the parade. Sometimes we would make trips to a friend’s camp to cool off. The opportunities were endless. It’s since lost some luster. Now I see masses of lower-back-tattooed teenage mothers, a grown man telling a 17-year-old girl that her wearing a bikini top is “false advertising,” and people asking if bars open at 9:30 in the morning.
Yet, I still had trouble leaving.
Nostalgia is powerful. It’s why Burt Reynolds still gets acting gigs and it’s why VH1 has been able to keep a series going for nearly a decade by changing one number in the name. It keeps people watching the same movies and listening to the same songs every year on Christmas, no matter if they actually like them or not.
When I told my neighbor I was going to Portland, she told me her favorite holiday is Old Hallowell Day. Even more than Christmas, she said. Another friend’s Facebook status read: “I have a hard time sleeping the night before the weekend of Old Hallowell Day. A harder time than a little kid has on Christmas Eve, I’d say.”
Old Hallowell Day has Christmas beat for Hallowellians on one account: It’s ours. For one day in the year, everyone wants to be in Hallowell. It’s our celebration. Everyone else is just a guest. I don’t care if that sounds conceited or snobby. Other towns also have festivals and I’m guessing they feel similarly. The day is about enjoying Maine’s “smallest city.” And after everyone leaves, we’ll still be there.
Unless of course my favorite rapper is playing a secret show in an RV somewhere.