Lights, Fireworks, Parades and Meatpies
Contributed by Terry Isbell
from Old Natchitoches Parish Magazine
The Christmas Festival we know and love today had very humble beginnings. In 1920, Max Burgdof came to Natchitoches to install the Fairbanks-Morse electricity generators purchased by the Power & Light Department. He did such a good job that Mayor T.E. Poleman persuaded him to stay on as chief electrician. In 1926, Max, who’d found a home in Natchitoches, thought that stringing Christmas lights along Front Street would be a nice Christmas present from the Power & Light Department to the citizens of his adopted town. He and Councilman Alf Ortmeyer approached local businessmen with the idea and Foster & Glassell, Avoyelles Wholesale, and W.F. Taylor each put up $25.00, while other businesses put up lesser amounts. A small 10 watt light bulb had just become available and Mr. Burgdof used the money to acquire a small supply of them.
Interestingly enough, just like now, the town was of two minds about the lights. While most residents supported the idea, some thought using Power & Light employees to string the lights was a waste of public money. Those in favor of the lights won out, however, and over the next decade the lights were extended down Front Street, over to Church Street and across part of Second. Despite better financial support for the Christmas lights, Natchitoches seemed to prefer the inexpensive small bulbs so the Power & Light Department continued to use them. There was a down-side though. Since the colors faded, every bulb had to be hand dipped into a vat of dye before they could be restrung. Luckily, bulbs with interior frosting became available and made this job obsolete.
To complement the lights, Burgdof built the first set piece, an 8 foot tall Christmas Star, which as since been remodeled into a piece 21 feet across. After launching the lights, Max Burgdof would go on to become a local ice-manufacturing baron and Charles Solomon, his succesor as chief electrician, picked up the “torch” of the Christmas lights. Today, he is probably the individual most identified with the lights. Mr. Solomon, with the help of his friend and co-worker Charles Maggio, built over 40 set pieces from either their own or submitted designs.
The Festival actually began when people in Natchitoches and the surrounding communities began to gather downtown on the first night the lights were turned on. This turning on of the lights became a community event but an informal one. Eventually, a committee of local businessmen under the direction of the Chamber of Commerce, began to plan and organize it (see page XX for a list of Festival Chairmen). The event quickly evolved into a festival, the Festival of Lights, which was a big hit. People from all over the region started coming to Natchitoches on the first Saturday in December.
It was in the late 1930’s that the Festival first featured fireworks. Two separate stories are told about how this came about. One story has it that in 1936, a couple of local businessmen, Allen T. Cox and Sam E. West, were discussing over coffee one morning, how the Festival could be jazzed up. They hit on the idea of fireworks. The two men enlisted the help of master Festival fundraiser Alf Ortmeyer, who raised $300.00 from local businessmen. Two of those businessmen, John Hamilton Cunningham and A.C. Massingill, took the money down to New Orleans both buy the rockets and learn how to shoot them off. While this is the most widely known story of how the Festival got its fireworks, there is another version.
This other version says that John Cunningham, Chairman of the Festival that year, and his friend, A.C. Massingill, were trying to decide how to make the 1939 Festival special, as it coincided with the 225th anniversary of the founding of Natchitoches. The Lighting Committee found it had a 400 dollars surplus in the budget due to the barge parade coming in under budget and was casting about for the best way to spend it. Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Massingill hit upon the idea of buying fireworks, and the rest his history. No matter how they got started, the fireworks were an immediate hit. Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Massingill would continue to shoot off the fireworks until John Cunningham was killed in World War II.
Every year, more money was raised for the fireworks (until a couple of years ago, the money was raised using roadblocks for voluntary donations or charging a voluntary admission fee to downtown), and the fireworks have continued to evolve into the incredible double display we see today.
Along with the lights and the fireworks, one of the biggest crowd pleasers of the modern Festival are the parades. The “adult” parade, held in the early afternoon, came about as a way to attract people to town earlier in the day so that the merchants could benefit from their patronage. Prior to the introduction of the parade, the ‘Festival’ consisted of some church sponsored activities, perhaps a short patriotic program, then fireworks followed by the turning on of the lights. Northwestern State often had a football game in the early afternoon, which gave people something to do until dark, but took them away from the downtown merchants. For several years, Festival-goers would have to choose between the game and the parade. Gradually, the parade won. Actually, the afternoon parade became so popular, that the Festival quickly added a lighted-barge parade on the Cane.
The children’s parade made its debut in 1971. It was started in response to criticisms that there wasn’t much for children to do at the Festival. Traditionally held earlier in the day, it has a shorter route so as not to tire the children too much. This short route is deeply lined with proud grandparents armed with cameras and camcorder so as to record their grandchild for posterity.
The parades accomplished their purpose and people began to gather for the Festival early in the day. There has always been a desire not to “commercialize” the Festival, but the crowds got to the point that the existing merchants couldn’t feed them. The Festival committee decided to allow food booths and local churches and charities began to set them up. Most of these booths, then and now, featured the highly popular Natchitoches Meat Pie. Other types of food also became available, or as one Festival-goer put it, “if it swims, flies, hops, or crawls, you can find it there, deep-fried and on a stick”.
The Festival went on break in 1941, when Natchitoches turned its attention to more serious matters. After the war, though, the town clamored for it’s return. In an effort to cut costs for the first revived Festival, the Committee had to drop the barge parade. In protest, several residents floated decorated war-surplus rubber rafts down the Cane.
In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, the Festival really began to grow. Along with the growth, though, came increased expenses. Just like now, various ways of coping with the expense have been proposed, ranging from admissions fees to door to door solicitations. One of the long term fund raisers that developed in the late 40’s was the sale of programs. The Festival Programs listed the day’s events, information about Natchitoches and the Festival and most importantly paid advertising. Advertisers included: Live Oak Grocery on Second Street – “Right on The Corner and Right on the Price!”; Levy Rexall Drug Store on Front Street – “prescriptions filled by registered college graduates only”, and Standard Bakery on St. Denis – “Home of Freshy Bread”. These “Compliments of” ads both supported the Festival and brought Festival-goers into these businesses, but the Program’s popularity waxed and waned. Some years they sold well and other years they stacked up in the Chamber’s office. Finally, they were discontinued and the Natchitoches’ Time’s Tourism Tabloid took over the job of listing the Festival activities.
In the 1950’s, two important additions to the Festival came about. Prior to 1957, the event had always centered around the theme of “Christmas in Song and Story”. In 1957, a contest was held to determine a new theme and the winner was “Joy to the World”. The contest has existed in various forms ever since (see page XX for a list of contest winners and themes). The other tradition with its roots in the 1950’s was the selection of Miss Merry Christmas and the Christmas Belles. Every parade needs beauty queens, and the 1956 Festival Committee (under Chairman W.R. Noah), decided the Festival needed its own beauty contest. The winner of that first contest was Miss Judy Hubley (see XX for list of Miss Merry Christmas). All the Miss Merry Christmases and the Christmas Belles have added immeasurably to the Festival, making numerous public appearances and caroling the tourists on Front Street. Despite Bobby Harling’s little joke in Steel Magnolias, none were ever caught with a Natchitoches mayor in a local motel room. They’ve all been young ladies of upstanding character as well as beauty.
An additional tradition that developed in the early 1950’s was the booking of Ms. Betty Brown as part of the entertainment. Ms. Brown was a State Champion Baton Twirler and throughout the 50’s and early 60’s, Ms. Brown and her student twirlers would be a fixture at every Christmas Festival.