Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Tournament of Roses and Rose Parade

Rose Parade 2017. RAGU : Simmered in Tradition float, By Prayitno - CC BY 2.0,
Growing up in southern California, I knew the Pasadena Tournament of Roses and accompanying Rose Parade as a familiar part of New Year’s festivities. I attended the parade in person a couple of times as a child, but my family quickly switched to most locals’ preference: watching the parade live on TV New Year’s morning, taking the comfort of sofa, pajamas, hot breakfast, and easy bathroom access to braving the crowds and the cold for an actual spot on the parade route—a feat many have historically managed only by camping overnight on the street. Still, Pasadena’s Rose Parade—the most famous piece of the overall Tournament of Roses—has put this Los Angeles suburb on the international map now for nearly 130 years.

Decorated carriage in the Rose Parade, c. 1895-1899, Public Domain

The Rose Parade began on January 1, 1890, when the newly formed Valley Hunt club of wealthy emigrants to Pasadena launched a tournament to showcase the mild climate of southern California to the rest of the country. (See! We have roses when you have snow!) The first parade featured flower-covered, horse-drawn floats and was followed by various games including tug-of-war and exotic animal races. The event became an almost immediate success, and by 1895 the Tournament of Roses Association that continues to this day had been formed. By 1920, the floats became motorized, and they have only become more elaborate over the years, though the basic principle of all-natural covering materials—seeds, grasses, nutshells, etc. as well as flowers and flower petals—has remained a firm standard.

The Rose Bowl
Rose Bowl game 1923, By SURVEY HABS CA-2667 -
 US Library of Congress Digital ID, ca2274. {Public Domain}

In 1902, a football game was added to the festivities. The first year, however, Michigan beat Stanford so badly, sending the crowd into such chaos, that it was decided to abolish football from the Tournament in favor of horse-drawn chariot racing. It was soon discovered, however, that chariot racing wasn’t exactly safe either, and football was reinstated in 1915. Since then, the Rose Bowl has remained one of the most popular features of the tournament, drawing tens of thousands of visitors from across the country just as the parade does.

99th Rose Queen, Victoria Castellanos, 2017. By Prayitno, CC BY 2.0

The Rose Queen

One of the most eagerly anticipated floats in the parade—at least among little girl viewers—is that holding the Rose Queen and her court, or more officially, the Queen of the Tournament of Roses. Each year, 1,000 young women ages 17-21 try out for the Rose Court. After being judged on their poise, personality, public speaking, and academic prowess, the number is eventually whittled down to seven girls who will form the court, and the leader is crowned Queen. She rides on a small but elegant float, surrounded by the six Princesses, and is heralded by the official trumpeters of Pasadena City College.

Grand Marshall

Each Rose Parade has an honored Grand Marshall, sometimes several, who rides in a special automobile in the parade. Many dignitaries, celebrities, and humanitarian figures have served in this role over the years, including Walt Disney (and later, Mickey Mouse), Shirley Temple Black, President Gerald Ford, Reverend Billy Graham, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Fred Rogers, the Apollo 12 astronauts, and (posthumously) Jackie Robinson.


In a parade with such a long history, traditions have naturally developed. For one thing, each float and entry in the parade—which also includes marching bands, equestrian units, and military corps—must follow the theme of the year. Not even Honda, who has sponsored the parade for several years now, can deviate from the theme in their own float. Themes have varied from “Poems in Flowers” in 1929 to “Hold a Victory so Hardly Won” in 1945 to “Children’s Dreams, Wishes, and Imagination” in 2003.
Mission Play float, 1922. San Fernando Valley
History Digital Library [1], Public Domain.

The Tournament of Roses also holds a famous, slightly tongue-in-cheek “pact with God”—that the tournament will never be held on a Sunday, and that in return the Lord will kindly send good weather for the parade. This pact was proposed by the Valley Hunt Club in 1893, and indeed rain has rarely fallen on the parade—though the decision-makers were also highly influenced by the fact that all the horses brought out by churchgoers on Sundays would likely be spooked by all the parade commotion. But regardless, to this day if January 1st falls on a Sunday, the entire Tournament of Roses is moved to Monday.

By Prayitno / Salvation Army Marching Band, Rose Parade, CC BY 2.0,
Other traditional elements faithful viewers anticipate each year include the beautiful Andalusian horses ridden by performers from the Medieval Times dinner theater, the Benny Martinez family with their trick-roping horseback skills, international floats from such far-flung lands as Thailand and China, and the Salvation Army marching band.

So, what about you? Have you ever seen the Rose Parade—either in person or on television? What elements of its history surprised you? Please comment and share!

Kiersti Giron holds a life-long passion for history and historical fiction. She loves to write stories that show the intersection of past and present, explore relationships that bridge cultural divides, and probe the healing Jesus can bring out of brokenness. Kiersti has been published in several magazines, won the 2013 ACFW Genesis Award - Historical for her manuscript Beneath a Turquoise Sky, and is currently a 2018 Genesis Finalist. An English teacher and member of American Christian Fiction Writers, Kiersti loves learning and growing with other writers penning God's story into theirs, as well as blogging at She lives in California with her wonderful husband, Anthony, and their two kitties.


  1. I love the Rose Parade and watch it every year. It never disappoints. I felt bad for them this year when the one float broke down and caught fire, but they were right on top of things getting it towed out of the way. Something associated with the parade I never thought about as a possibility. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Yikes--I actually missed it on TV this year, so I didn't know about the fire! I guess accidents happen anywhere. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing, Linda!

  2. I have seen the Rose Parade on TV several times. It's amazing to think of the work involved in putting those floats together. I love that they won't hold it on a Sunday. I hope that tradition remains. Thanks for posting, and Happy New Year.

    1. The floats are amazing, aren't they, Connie? I love how they are all-natural materials too. Thanks so much for sharing!

  3. I’ve seen the rose parade on tv growing up. I never knew of its history. Very interesting, thanks for posting.

    1. It's fun learning more of the background, isn't it? Thanks so much for reading and sharing!