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Lewisburg’s annual Shanghai Surprise

By Staff | Nov 30, 2011

West Virginia certainly has its share of unique festivals: Charleston’s Vidalia Festival over Memorial Day, Buckhannon’s Strawberry Parade and Festival in late May, Preston County’s Buckwheat Festival in October, and Fairmont’s much-talked-about parade to honor their famous Pepperoni Roll. And although festivals like Strawberry and Buckwheat go back as far as the 1930s, practically all of these celebrations can be traced to a local businessman or some Chamber of Commerce masterminding events as a way to drum up sales or raise revenue. The one exception to this seems to be Lewisburg’s Shanghai Festival and Parade celebrated every New Year’s Day. Its origin is a mystery; its purpose is sketchy at best.

Lewisburg has a storied past and is one of the oldest communities in southern West Virginia. Facing resistance from the Shawnee tribes who originally occupied this area, the European settlers in the early days of the French and Indian War established a fort and settlement in the region: General Edward Braddock ordered the building of Fort Savannah in 1755.

By 1782, the town of Lewisburg, centered at the site of Fort Savannah, was incorporated by the Virginia General Assembly. As Greenbrier’s county seat, the population grew steadily throughout the early 19th century, primarily consisting of European immigrants looking for land to farm or working in the local coal mines. There’s no “George Washington Slept Here” claim in Lewisburg but it is well-documented that Patrick Henry did try a case here in 1785.

It was sometime during or shortly after the Civil War that the Shanghai Parade first occurred in Lewisburg. According Dr. Mary Ann Mann, the chairperson of the Shanghai Parade for the past 20 years, “Lewisburg residents, during the Civil War, would dress up and go to people’s houses and party.”

Over the course of the week between Christmas and New Years, there would be nightly galas at multiple selected homes in town. Dr. Mann points out that the name of the festival may originate from the practice of “grabbing one person from each gathering” and “shanghai-ing them” – that is, bringing them along like a prisoner to the next party. But Dr. Mann is quick to point out that there’s no evidence that this is where the name has its roots; there’s also a legend of a missionary from Asia who lived in Lewisburg during the last part of the 19th century, whose name may have been or have inspired the title “Shanghai.”

Whatever the case may be, this saturnalian event has occurred every New Years Day for the last 150 years (with a brief hiatus during the years of WWI and WWII). Similar to the Mummer’s Parade tradition, this annual event attracts most facets of the Lewisburg community: children dressed up in clown-like costumes, teenagers dressed up as Geishas and Boy Scouts sporting a Chinese dragon, adults in Mardi Gras masks and outfits, and the fire chief wearing his boots and customary adult diaper (nothing else) and carrying a rattle. Every year the parade marshal, dubbed the “Super Dooper Pooper Scooper” is the honorary resident who takes up the rear of the parade with the ceremonial engraved shovel to clean up after the horses.

The Shanghai Festival and Parade takes place along Washington Street in downtown Lewisburg at noon on New Years Day. Make sure to bring your most eccentric costume for this historic happening; anyone can participate, with registration occurring the morning of the parade.

– For more information, go to www.lewisburg-wv.com/