Her face was so bright under her blue hat that she could’ve lit up the entire parade with her smile. Her mom would pull her close, this little bundle of a girl no more than two, and then hold the child out, much to their mutual enjoyment. The little girl would laugh and wiggle in her mother’s outstretched arms and look at the pretty lights strung in the trees of downtown Athens. Children just like her lined the streets, wrapped in so many layers of clothing that their arms couldn’t touch their sides. Their parents keeping a close eye as the little ones wandered out into the street, hoping to catch a glimpse at the band they heard in the distance.
I stood with Gordon and Matt, shivering. There was chatter all around us on the corner of College Avenue. The shops were closed, all decorated with shiny lights and tinsel, begging the passerby to come in tomorrow and enjoy the season. Hot dog vendors has set up shop, letting their ketchup scented goodness waft in the breeze, reminding me that I hadn’t had a bite all day.
But it didn’t matter. This was the Athens Festival of Lights. My all time favorite event of the year that doesn’t have the name Athfest. It’s such a small town thing to do, parades. Load up all the kids on a flatbed truck, grab some PVC pipe and cotton for snow, string some lights and you’ve got a float. The whole town, it seemed, turned out for the parade.
It’s odd but we sometimes forget the parts of our lives and city that we don’t see. I never see children during my days at work and the nights downtown. But they’re all around. The music scene gets so insular that it’s easy to forget there are other things, other people, out there that have no connection whatsoever to what you do. But the parade’s not about the music scene or UGA or the shopkeepers or the people who live on the outside of town. There’s no cliques. Just a community.
Maybe it’s because I had a hard time fitting into Athens when I first arrived. When you’re a student at UGA, there’s an automatic disconnect that occurs between yourself and the town. Your friends are all college students, you eat on campus, sleep on campus, work and live on campus. There’s very little incentive to actually interact with Athens itself. But the music found me on campus and dragged me out of relative comfort, turning me around to stare into the glaring lights of the city. Lights that, on a night like tonight, sparkle with a brilliance and familiarity that I have rarely known.
As we stood and waved to the marching bands, grinning Grinches, and half-dozen decorated dump trucks, I felt at home. I wasn’t born here. I wasn’t raised here. I may not even get to stay here. But if there were ever a place in the world that I actually felt like myself, I found it again on the corner of College Avenue on a chilly December night.