Story by Len Likas
Photography by Catherine May Taylor, Donovan Wilde and Ben Williams
Alexandria is home to a very special annual tradition. On the first Saturday of December for the past 50 years, the Alexandria Scottish Christmas Walk has brought people together with a festive family-focused parade across the heart of Old Town. Cheerful folks of all ages coming from far and wide make their way street side to take part in the merriment and good tidings that come only once a year. Feelings of warmth and goodwill toward our fellow man quickly dispel the sometimes frigid weather. For many, the Christmas Walk has become the perfect tradition to start the holiday season and honor the city’s great Scottish heritage. Of course, you don’t need to be of Scottish, Irish, Welsh, or English descent to enjoy yourself here – All are welcome. So don your warmest wool sweater and don’t forget the knit hat because this is a winter parade and you’re really going to savor that thermos of hot cocoa.
The air is brisk as early daylight streaks in over adjacent rooflines and past brick facades. The sidewalks are teeming with people and the excitement and expectation are palpable. Then all at once you hear it: the rousing melody and harmonic drone of dozens of bagpipes playing in unison with cracking snares and bass drum beating a steady thump. The stately Scottish military-styled band makes its way down the block, echoing through the streets as it goes. They’re followed by a steady stream of authentically dressed historical reenactment groups, Scottish clans, fife and drum corps, Scottish and Irish dance schools, and assorted color guards. Fire engines come roaring past. You’ll see more Scottish terriers wearing Christmas sweaters than you ever thought possible. Olde-tyme English cars putter along with amusing sounding horns and the occasional comic backfire. Local politicians toss out heaps of penny candy for the kids. Even esteemed dignitaries from far afield are known to fly in for the occasion, notably none other than Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus themselves! And who would’ve known Santa could play the bagpipes?
Though it’s quite the spectacle today, the parade has quite humble roots. The Walk was established in 1969 by the St. Andrew’s Society of Greater Washington, D.C., when a lone piper led a congregation to the Old Presbyterian Meeting House to lay a wreath in honor of the original group’s founder, William Hunter. Today, the Walk is an immensely popular annual institution in the city as well as a valuable fundraiser for charity. The weekend draws in more than just Old Towners, too. One parade regular, Ralph Wallace of Clan Wallace and the Scottish-American Military Society confirms “I know folks that come to this event from around the world, and as they are able, choose to return time and again because of the camaraderie.” It’s not uncommon to see pipe bands from as far away as upstate New York and Pennsylvania make the pilgrimage to this legendary event.
'For many of us Alexandrians, the Scottish Walk ushers in the holiday season. It’s become a tradition for us all, something we all look forward to. It is a time for us to get together for a good cause, while celebrating our city’s rich history and beauty during the holidays.' - Kaitlyn Likas
One pipe band in particular plays a key role in the proceedings: City of Alexandria Pipes & Drums, led by a true virtuoso of the instrument, Pipe Major John Sprague. Every year, City of Alexandria Pipes & Drums formally opens the parade with a grand display of pomp and circumstance. Clad in blazing scarlet Cameron tartans and topped with traditional Scottish military bearskin caps, the band marches in perfect unison through the streets to the powerful sound of perfectly tuned instruments and precise playing. Tunes typically include favorite marching standards like “Highland Laddie,” “Green Hills of Tyrol,” and the requisite “Scotland the Brave.” And lest we forget the bagpipe renditions of traditional Christmas carols that are always a crowd highlight.
Former City of Alexandria Pipes & Drums member Ben Williams has been attending the Walk since 1973. A retired high school history teacher, Williams remains a local fixture in Celtic folk music and living history reenactment circles. He’s marshalled a steady stream of students dressed in traditional Scottish garb to the parade over the years, either as part of the school pipe band he founded but more often serving as color guard for the Celtic Society of Southern Maryland and Clan MacFarlane. Williams reminisces about those parade days fondly: “Come 10:30am and everywhere, I mean everywhere, it’s all kilts – people parking, getting out of cars –everyone’s wearing a kilt! After the massed bands at the end of the parade we’d set up a concert in Market Square with folk instruments and Scottish country dancing. We’d get a crowd going and encourage the public to join in. It was a lot of fun.” Williams also seems to recall two sisters when they were very young, both promising Scottish Highland dancers, who danced with the group as they made their way along the parade route.
Featured on the cover of this issue are two lovely young Alexandria ladies with a true passion for Celtic music and dancing, Jessica and Kaitlyn Likas. Both began dance
lessons at a young age, starting with traditional Scottish Highland dancing. At the time, Scottish dancing was the closest they could get to the Irish step dancing their mother, Margaret, had learned as a young girl in Boston after emigrating with her parents from Ireland. They each found success in Scottish dance, competing at Celtic festivals and Highland games across the country before entering a prominent school of Irish step dancing. All the while, the sisters studied the violin in school, but it was Kaitlyn who took her love of Celtic music one step further. She began chasing her passion for traditional Irish fiddling and hasn’t looked back since. Her richly emotive and dynamic fiddle playing is adorned with the delicate musical ornamentation and flourishes that mark the Irish style, and make it distinct from the precise snap and measured style that marks fine Scottish fiddling. Kaitlyn has shared stages with countless notable musicians, played the Kennedy Center, and even fiddled on tour in Ireland. Alexandria locals can often catch Kaitlyn sitting in on sessions at pubs like Murphy’s and O’Connell’s.
The Likas sisters have been participants in Alexandria’s Scottish Christmas Walk since the mid-1990s and both have been residents of Old Town for the last decade. “We’ve participated in the Christmas Walk for nearly 30 years, ever since we moved to the DMV area,” says Jessica. “It’s an annual tradition for our family. We like to support the local community. Cultural events like this that bring people together are a great way to do that. So many people come together from all around the region. No matter what your heritage, it’s like a really big extended family on parade day.”
In Kaitlyn’s view, “For many of us Alexandrians, the Scottish Walk ushers in the holiday season. It’s become a tradition for us all, something we all look forward to. It is a time for us to get together for a good cause, while celebrating our city’s rich history and beauty during the holidays. I like to stop at the Heather and Greens sale run by the Campagna Center before the Scottish Walk weekend. I always buy some heather to decorate my home. It’s so symbolic of Scottish culture, and it’s hard to come by in this area.”
Kaitlyn continues: “Currently, I’m serving as the Public Relations Coordinator for the Ballyshaners organization. ‘Ballyshaners’ means ‘Old Towners’ in the Irish language.” This group of proud Alexandrians with Celtic roots is a mainstay at the Christmas Walk. They also help organize the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Alexandria. “For the past few years, I’ve hosted the Ballyshaners along with other friends and family for a breakfast at my place in Old Town before the Christmas Walk. All the members bring something to share. Authentic Scottish breakfast fare is served. Impromptu Celtic jam sessions break out and lots of shenanigans. It’s been a great way for all of us to warm-up and get energized before the big, brisk walk through Old Town. I can’t think of a Walk when it wasn’t bone-chilling cold.”
Indeed, held in the first weeks of December, the Walk can test the will of parade goers with gusty winds and even snowflakes. “With our Irish coffees to keep us warm we’d all meet up at the parade staging area, rain or shine,” Jessica reminisces. Along the parade route families huddle under tartan blankets, angora and corded wool sweaters abound, as do the traditional Scottish kilts woven in the many clan tartans of unique and colorful plaid patterns that help lend Scottish culture such distinct charm.
‘Tis true – Scots and Celts in general are known to place a high value on their long-standing traditions. One Christmas tradition well known in Scotland is wassailing. You may be familiar with the term from the Christmas carol ‘Here We Come A-wassailing,’ and that’s a big clue about the meaning of this unusual sounding word: wassailing means caroling. The Ballyshaners in particular are well known for singing Christmas carols as they walk the parade route, spreading good cheer to all as they go. Ralph Wallace and his troop love “Getting the separate sides of the street competing back and forth on who can say ‘Ho, Ho, Ho!’ the loudest, then closing it with a loud ‘Merry Christmas!’”
But the Christmas Walk on Saturday morning is not the only great event during this weekend. Everything kicks off with the sponsored benefit event Taste of Scotland on Friday – an expertly curated tasting of some of the finest Scotch spirits and ales. And we can’t forget the utterly charming Holiday Homes Tour, a guided walk through historic Old Town properties beautifully appointed with festive holiday decorations designed by acclaimed interior designers and florists. Charming events like these go a long way helping maintain the city’s long-standing reputation as a rich cultural and historical cache. It’s no wonder that Alexandria was recently recognized by Southern Living Magazine as “the perfect southern town for a Hallmark Christmas movie!” With such quaint and picturesque settings, elegant dining and shopping options, and exciting culture on offer, it’s easy to see why.
Did you know Alexandria has a sister city? Surely in a nod to the Scottish origin of its founders, Alexandria has paired up with Dundee, Scotland in the sister cities program to promote mutual appreciation and encourage tourism and commerce. Situated on the north bank of the effluent Firth of Tay, Dundee is Scotland’s fourth largest city and home to just under 150,000 inhabitants. It’s got a whole lot to offer in the way of culture. So much so that The Wall Street Journal placed it at number five on its ‘Worldwide Hot Destinations’ list and GQ named it the ‘Coolest Little City in Britain.’ When we finally overcome our current viral malaise, Alexandrians with a penchant for all things Scottish may consider a visit to this outstanding destination.
Unfortunately but probably not unexpected given the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic afflicting us, the 50th anniversary of Alexandria Scottish Christmas Walk has been cancelled in 2020. Considering the weekend’s events serve as the cornerstone of the Campagna Center’s annual fundraising efforts, this was a difficult but necessary decision based on public safety. Founded in 1991, the Campagna Center is a non-profit community outreach organization that sprouted from the independent Alexandria YMCA and YWCA. The organization provides critical social services in the city. “Many people don’t know that the Campagna Center is the official host of the parade,” says Jessica Likas. “The proceeds of the weekend’s festivities are their largest fundraiser of the year, generating around a quarter of a million dollars which directly benefits Alexandrians in need.”
Through this time of challenges we will look forward to better times ahead and be grateful for our blessings – blessings of health, the health of our families and friends, the health of our communities and our nation. We will remember those who we’ve lost. The spirit of the season is giving. Please give to your local charities or volunteer and help those less fortunate than you. Seasons blessings to you and yours from the staff at VIP Alexandria.