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What do I need to know before I go? If I were to participate must I be of Scottish heritage?   What is the significance and importance of the Scottish Christmas Walk? Do clans have a real rivalry? What is the significance of the tartan?

Want to celebrate Alexandria’s biggest holiday weekend but don’t know where to start? Dinna fash yersel! (That’s Scottish for don’t worry.) Sure, there are more than a dozen holiday events in Alexandria December 4th through the 6th, but the number one must-see is the Scottish Christmas Walk Parade. On December 5 at 11 a.m., Old Town Alexandria will welcome more than 20,000 parade-goers with the bellow of bagpipes and the beat of drums as over a hundred marching units—including Scottish clans, dancers, dignitaries, Scottie dogs and more—head to Market Square to salute our bonny town’s rich Scottish heritage.

Many different people march in the parade—including a pair from the North Pole—but the ones you see in Scottish dress have a special connection to Scotland, and to Alexandria. Many are members of the Saint Andrew’s Society, which originated in Alexandria in the late 1700s.   You don’t have to be of Scottish ancestry to go the Scottish Christmas Walk or shop in Old Town.   It’s a grand time for everyone.

To be a member of Saint Andrew’s, you must have “one foot in Scotland,” in other words, confirmed Scottish lineage. Some members are recent immigrants to the United States who are connected to the British Embassy (since Scotland is part of the United Kingdom). Others have Scottish ancestry as close as two or three generations back.

Alexandria’s Scottish Christmas Walk is the summit of Scottish activity in the region for the year, “It’s like a giant family picnic.” In the parade, Scottish immigrants and descendants march to the tune of their cultural and genealogical heritage. It’s a way to feel connected with a faraway home and with the ancestors some clan members never got to meet.

The parade is also a chance to give back: proceeds from participation fees benefit the Campagna Center, Alexandria’s leading not-for-profit organization dedicated to providing educational and social development programs for children, teens, and adults.

For several reasons, Alexandria is the perfect place for the Scottish Walk. First, Alexandria is steeped in Scottish history—in 1749 it was officially established by Scottish merchants and named after John Alexander. Those merchants were also members of the Saint Andrew’s Society in its early days. (One of them, William Hunter, is buried behind the Old Presbyterian Meeting House in Alexandria, and before each parade members place a wreath on his grave.)

But Alexandria has an even closer connection to Scotland—we have little pieces of it in our streets!  During the 18th century, when Alexandria was a major seaport, Scottish merchants sailed to the city with stone in the bellies of their boats for ballast. Upon arrival, the ships dumped the stones in the streets to open up their vessel for goods. Legend has it that Old Town’s cobblestone streets still contain ballast from those Scottish ships. For many, walking the streets of Old Town is one way to revisit your ancestral homeland.

Centuries ago in feudal Scotland, the weave or pattern of a tartan (plaid) revealed who your family was, the person you were married to or who you were subservient to. Today things are a little different, but the main idea is the same: your tartan is your way to celebrate your family’s heritage.

 Look closely during the parade, and you’ll see that many of the men clad in Scottish regalia carry small, hairy bags around their waists, almost like a furry fanny pack. Nope, this isn’t the latest trend in men’s wear (although maybe it should be), but those furry bags actually serve a very practical purpose. Called sporrans, the purse worn around the waist came about because traditionally, kilts do not have pockets. So what might you find inside those woolly wallets? Most likely money, credit cards and cell phones.

Traditionally, Scotsmen wore nothing under the kilt, apart from long shirts tied in a knot between their legs. So if a wearer keeps tradition, no boxers or briefs are worn under the kilt so it’s safe to leave it at that.

You’ll see many dogs in the parade who proudly march in honor of their Scottish ancestors, including a host of Scottie dogs. But you’ll also spy dogs in the parade who are just happy to support a good cause—and who’s complaining about that?

There are quite a few clans who march in the parade who share longstanding rivalries.  The rivalry is friendly and a source of many jokes, but when Scots get together—and have absorbed a couple glasses of Scotch—the rivalry never fails to come up. In short “We forgive, but we remember.”

Some Other Christmas Walk Events

All this Scottish history got you thirsty for a wee dram? Book your ticket to the Campagna Center’s Taste of Scotland event, when you can sample varieties of Scotches and other Scottish spirits and lift a glass to our city’s founding fathers.

Campagna Center – You know what they say: Put a wreath on it! But seriously, there’s no better way to catch the holiday spirit than with fresh heather bundles, wreaths, or garlands in your home or office.

If you want to know the real meaning of “decked out,” take a stroll through some of Old Town Alexandria’s historic homes in all their holiday splendor for some serious decoration inspiration.

The Art League helps kick off the holiday season with an annual art celebration and open house featuring exhibits, live music, artist demonstrations, and refreshments, as well as a weekend-long ceramics and jewelry sale of handmade wares by Art League students and associates.

At sundown on the day of the Scottish Christmas Walk parade, Alexandria’s harbor lights up as dozens of illuminated boats cruise the Potomac River at the historic waterfront, led by Alexandria’s fireboat The Vigilant and Washington, DC’s fireboat John Glenn. DC media personality Tommy McFly of 94.7 Fresh FM will be the parade announcer.  At the marina before and after the parade, stop in to the Holiday Festival: Take a Walk in the Woods at the Torpedo Factory Art Center  between 4 and 9 p.m. to enjoy performances by the Alexandria Harmonizers plus gift shopping in open artist studios.

Note to Santa: I want a piece of local art this Christmas, and the Torpedo Factory Open House is the perfect place to find it. With live music and special activities, the Torpedo Factory is also the perfect place to pop in on your way to or from the Boat Parade of Lights! And the Torpedo Factory is the perfect place to find a unique work of art and/or jewelry and purchase it directly from the artist. You also may have the opportunity to see the artist at work (making the purchase all the more special).

Kathy Kiefer