For many years, Anniversary Day was a huge event for those who came of age in neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. There were parades, floats, marching bands and because it was observed on a weekday – the first Thursday in June – it also served as a day off from school for the kids.
These days, Anniversary Day is observed by schools in all five boroughs but it bears little or no resemblance to the holiday loved and celebrated all those years ago. The active celebration of Anniversary Day stretched into the mid-1980s when it finally ended.
So, what was the celebration all about? The very first Sunday School in New York City was founded in 1816 by the Brooklyn Sunday School Union in order to “provide gratuitous religious instruction to children on the Sabbath Day.”
Thirteen years later, in 1829, the first Anniversary Day parade was held to commemorate that founding as well as to help increase the popularity of Sunday Schools. As the city’s population increased eastward, other unions were formed and the first union in Queens, the Woodhaven Sunday School Union, was founded in 1889.
As a result of this expansion, there was no longer just one parade, but dozens of different parades made up of hundreds of churches and tens of thousands of marchers along routes that traversed each neighborhood.
“The parade and the spirit that inspires it constitute one of the genuinely worthwhile things in the city.” That’s how Governor Herbert Lehman described it in 1937. Although it was a Protestant holiday, churches included Scout troops and other organizations that met in their buildings, so there were people of many different faiths coming together to celebrate.
In Woodhaven, the observance was so big and popular that there were actually two separate parades held at the same time, marching along different routes, including a varying number of churches, at times from as far away as Cypress Hills and Far Rockaway.
The “East End” parade included Emanuel United Church of Christ, the Community Church of Woodhaven, St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Christ Congregational Church, Woodhaven First Presbyterian, along with the First Methodist Church and United Brethren Churches, both of Ozone Park.
Those in the “West End” parade included Woodhaven’s Methodist Church, Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church, Woodhaven Baptist Church, Forest Park Reformed Church and St. Luke’s Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The parades started in their respective ends of the neighborhood, but both traveled along 91st Avenue and passed a single reviewing stand populated by local luminaries; state assemblymen and senators, councilmen, and civic and local business leaders.
Each year’s parade had a theme such as “Love One Another,” “Try Christ’s Way” or “Christian Unity—World Fellowship.” One year, in the late 1930s, the theme was simply “Peace,” a wish that would be shattered in just a few years.
For residents of Woodhaven, Anniversary Day was a gigantic and memorable event. Scouting groups carried flags and churches carried banners identifying themselves and the different groups represented. Bands were hired, hymns were sung. During World War II (save for 1943 when the parade was suspended), churches proudly carried service flags with the names of their boys in service.
Floats were decorated to match each year’s parade theme; smaller kids rode on the floats which were pulled by volunteers from the older groups or the Boy Scouts. Mothers pushed their young infants in baby carriages or strollers which were also decorated in colorful paper.
In 1959, the State Legislature made it a legal holiday for all schools in Brooklyn and Queens, and it also became well known as Brooklyn-Queens Day.
Over the next few decades participation in the parades began to dwindle and 1985 saw the very last Anniversary Day parade in Woodhaven, just four years shy of what would have been its 100th anniversary.
Today’s students might just see it as another welcome day off (the Department of Education observed it in Brooklyn and Queens on June 8), but those who grew up around Anniversary Day remember it fondly and lament the passing of another tradition, yet another in a long line of losses that leaves our piece of the world just a little less special.