SAVANNAH — Born just 3 months ago, Caroline Homans looked as if she might sleep through her first St. Patrick's Day parade Saturday, cradled in her grandfather's arms as he held a beer in his free hand. A couple of blocks away, 83-year-old Hugh Helmly sat in a chair by the sidewalk with a large magnifying glass to help him view the Savannah's Irish-themed procession.
"I wasn't going to miss it," said Helmly, a retired electrician whose vision remains weak after a recent eye surgery. "I didn't care how much I could see."
From newborns to the elderly, thousands jammed the oak-shaded squares and brick sidewalks of Savannah's downtown historic district for the largest St. Patrick's Day parade in the South. Started by Irish immigrants to Georgia's oldest city 195 years ago, the March parade has ballooned into a sprawling street party that's the No. 1 tourist draw for Savannah.
Bars opened to thirsty customers at 7 a.m. Saturday while the Catholic faithful attended morning Mass at the towering Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. By the time the parade of more than 300 marching bands, convertibles toting waving dignitaries and floats smothered in foil shamrocks stepped off, spectators lined the sidewalks three or four rows deep and stood elbow-to-elbow among party tents and dozens of coolers in the squares.
"Savannah's like a bad drug," said Bruce Souers, a Savannah native who's been attending parades for five decades, as he sipped Jameson Irish whiskey from a plastic cup. "Once it's in your blood, you can't get rid of it."
And celebrating St. Patrick's Day is encouraged in Savannah long before anyone is old enough to drink.
Newborn Caroline's father, Michael Homans, brought along a shoulder harness to carry the baby among the crowds if her grandfather's shoulder got tired. The tiny girl wore a green tutu around her waist and a bright green bow atop her mostly hairless head.
"The pediatrician said once the weather's warm, we could take her out," said Homans, who figures he wasn't much older when attending his first parade.
Somewhat chilly temperatures just below 60 degrees made hoodies and hot coffee popular parade accessories for those staking out spots early Saturday.
Surrounded by party tents and picnic tables in Lafayette Square, Brett Matthews took a nap while waiting for the parade to start. He showed up before dawn to grab a spot for his tent and coolers as early birds swarmed the square the moment police opened it to parade spectators.
"I got up at 3 o'clock in the morning and I got here at 5," an hour before the square opened, Matthews said. "Pretty much all this was set up by 6:05. It was a madhouse."
Savannah typically sticks to the traditional March 17 date to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. As in past years when the 17th fell on Sunday, the 2019 parade was held a day early to keep the booze-friendly celebration from overlapping with church services. New York and Chicago also held parades Saturday.
Outside Pinkie Master's Lounge a block from the parade route, owner Mike Warren said crowds seemed somewhat lighter than a typical Saturday parade. He suspects some people get confused when the parade gets held a day early because St. Patrick's Day falls on Sunday.
"When the holiday's actually on Saturday, there's a flood of people out the door," said Warren, who had extra bartenders working and expected business to pick up later in the day. "I wouldn't say it's slow by any stretch."