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At St. Patrick’s Day parade, tradition meets the galactic

Clone troopers and Jedi knights will probably face off in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year, as they did above in 2012.

Art Becker

Clone troopers and Jedi knights will probably face off in the St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year, as they did above in 2012.

Among the bagpipers, firefighters, and police taking part in Sunday’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, another band of marchers will be clad in uniforms issued in a galaxy far, far away.

They are the Jedi knights, stormtroopers, maybe even a Wookiee or two, who belong to the Rebel Legion and the 501st Legion, “Star Wars” fans who travel to the parade from across New England and as far away as Maryland dressed as characters from the popular films, books, and video games.

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In several previous appearances, they have become a much-anticipated draw of the annual South Boston rite, turning heads as they strut and duel through the streets wielding light sabers and blaster rifles.

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade is the unofficial start of costuming season for the groups, with the Woburn Halloween Parade marking its end. Walking 4 miles in costume through South Boston can be challenging, but members said it is worth it for the enjoyment they give the crowd, especially the children.

“It’s something of a rite of passage,” said Phil Maiewski, 37, who lives in Brookline, N.H., and will wear a clone trooper costume. “It is the hardest troop of the year, but it’s also one of the most fun, because we get the most people to come out for it.”

These “Star Wars” fans grew up with the film series and other science fiction films and television shows. Maiewski said he saw the first film when it came out in 1977, though he was too young to remember it.

“ ‘Star Wars’ has always been there. It was my childhood,” he said. “I always wanted to be Luke Skywalker.”

Maiewski dressed as Skywalker on Halloween when he was 6 or 7, he said, but like most other members, he didn’t start making and wearing his own costumes until much later.

Many stumbled into the hobby by accident. Erich Shafer, 33, was invited to an event by people he met through work.

“I turn around, and here’s Darth Vader, and stormtroopers, and clone troopers, and Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Leia in her bikini, and Mon Mothma walks out, and here goes Jango Fett, and I’m just like, ‘This is cool. I like this. I like this a lot,’ ” said Shafer, who lives in Framingham and owns more than a dozen character costumes.

Shafer met his wife at the 2008 St. Patrick’s Day Parade. She was a Jedi; he was an imperial crewman.

Andrew Liptak, 27, who will drive more than three hours from his home in Moretown, Vt., to march in the parade as a stormtrooper, said people shouldn’t assume “Star Wars” fans are nerdy.

“There are not a lot of people in their parents’ basements who just come out for conventions,” said Liptak, a freelance writer and student services advisor at a university. “We all have fairly functional lives.”

“Star Wars” costuming became an organized hobby in 1997, when fans celebrated the first film’s 20th anniversary, and South Carolinian Albin Johnson bought stormtrooper armor and founded the 501st Legion. Two years later, the Rebel Legion was born.

The groups have since grown to include thousands of members around the world. Both have strict requirements that costumes be “screen accurate,” and members spend hours studying the films and hand-crafting costumes.

While the older 501st remains larger, the groups share many members, who may dress as imperial gunners for one event and then as Padawans, or Jedi pupils, at others.

The groups have the blessing of George Lucas, creator of “Star Wars,” who allows them to appear publicly in costumes derived from the series so long as they don’t profit from appearances. The groups collect donations for organizations like the Jimmy Fund and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, charities serving some of the same children who are delighted — and sometimes terrified — to see them.

On Sunday morning, Ann Marie Shafer, wife of Erich Shafer and leader of the local base of the Rebel Alliance, will step into orange coveralls and strap on a white harness, leaving the bottom clasps open so she can bend and slip on her black boots. Onto the left boot, she will clip a cuff of green webbing and silver cylinders, fasten the harness, and strap on a hand-painted chest box. If the weather is good, she will paint her face green and don a headdress with tentacles that drape around her neck.

Dressing as an X-Wing pilot is not everyone’s idea of fun, but it comes naturally to Shafer, who grew up in a family of science fiction buffs.

“Of all the kids in the neighborhood, my brother and I were definitely the geekiest,” said Shafer, 26, who admits she’s actually a bigger fan of “Star Trek” than “Star Wars.”

At her wedding, groomsmen wore “Star Wars” costumes, while bridesmaids dressed in “Star Trek” regalia.

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremycfox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @JeremyCFox.
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