Natchitoches Christmas Festival - Cain's River

A Prelude To Steel Magnolias: Natchitoches Christmas Belles

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Small towns breed great stories. Stories filled with facts and sprinkled with flavor. Most of these stories are told at parties or family gatherings. But every now and then, there’s a story that’s just too good not to write down.

The story of Natchitoches’ Miss Merry Christmas and the Christmas Belles is one of those stories. The beauty and virtue that these titles represent deserve to be viewed in the proper context as our cultural attitudes about gender continue to evolve. In many ways they represent small town, Southern traditions that have become increasingly misunderstood.

I married a Natchitoches Christmas Belle. A Christmas Belle in the absolute fullest sense of the words. I now raise a daughter with that Christmas Belle in a world in which women excel at every imaginable social and professional level. But it wasn’t always that way.

Over the course of 58 years, Miss Merry Christmas and the Christmas Belles have helped create generations of confident young women that have gone on to tackle life’s challenges with an intellect, wit, and charm that is uniquely Natchitoches.

As we prepare for a Natchitoches Christmas Festival in which we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of “Steel Magnolias,” it’s worth reflecting on the role of Miss Merry Christmas and the Christmas Belles as a prelude to the legendary film that has come to symbolize the strength and beauty of Southern women.

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The Natchitoches Christmas Festival

For nearly 90 years, the tiny town of Natchitoches, Louisiana has spent the first Saturday of just about every December hosting its annual Christmas Festival. Over 150,000 festivalgoers flock to the little city each year to enjoy 300,000 brightly colored Christmas lights that illuminate the scenic Cane River Lake. The day is filled with food, parades, and fireworks.

For locals, the Festival is a source of great pride. Like one of their children, they’ve watched it grow over the years. Amidst the ever-changing landscape of the world around them, the first Saturday in December has remained constant.

The Festival is a time for local families to reunite. Children and grandchildren return home from far off places to soak up the magic of the little old town. Parents and grandparents look on as another generation of youngsters marvel at the lights.

Lighted Barge Parade

Miss Merry Christmas And The Christmas Belles

In 1956, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival Committee came up with what proved to be a remarkably bright idea. The committee decided that the Festival needed a face (or faces). But not just any faces. Pretty faces. Faces that would serve as ambassadors for the city and help draw crowds to its Festival.

In true “Mad Men” fashion, the 1950’s committee decided that the Festival needed a “beauty” contest. And from that point forward, a pageant has been held each fall to crown Miss Merry Christmas (the winner) and her Christmas Belles (the runner ups).

The contest is open to any high school senior girl who lives in Natchitoches Parish. Importantly, it’s not merely a match of superficial beauty.   It’s a contest in which participants are judged on their intellect, wit, and charm.

Contestants are administered a written test on their knowledge of Natchitoches’ unique history and culture. Test questions range from the year of Natchitoches’ founding (1714) to the number of Christmas lights that illuminate downtown during the holiday season. The test is scored and used to determine which girls make the final cut.

Interviews are conducted of the girls to test their attitude and disposition. An on onstage questioning session is used to test the girls’ wit and ability to think on their feet.

Upon being crowned, Miss Merry Christmas and the Christmas Belles instantly become ambassadors for the city and the hostesses of that year’s Festival. Decked out in their signature red (Miss Merry Christmas) and green (Christmas Belles) velvet dresses, Miss Merry Christmas and the Belles travel around the state promoting Natchitoches and the Festival. They march in small town parades. They visit rural elementary schools. They appear on radio and television shows. On the day of the Festival, they perform ceremonial duties, ride in the parade, and mingle with dignitaries from around the state.

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A Portrait Of A Natchitoches Christmas Belle

My wife was a Natchitoches Christmas Belle. Her tenure in the green velvet dress almost seemed predetermined at birth.

She was born during the Natchitoches Christmas Festival on Saturday, December 1, 1979.

As if her birth story didn’t give her enough Christmas Festival street credibility, her parents named her – Holly.

At the age of 5, while sitting downtown watching the Festival fireworks with her family, there was literally a sign from Santa. A firework malfunctioned and landed within 3 feet of her, fully engulfed in flames. It was like Moses and the burning bush. To this day, her father keeps the firework shell in his office.

For my wife, representing Natchitoches as a Christmas Belle was a wonderful experience. It gave her confidence at a critical time. It taught her grace. It taught her charm. It taught her the value of community.

Over the years, I’ve watched Holly masterfully use her inner Natchitoches Christmas Belleness to the benefit of our family. I’ve watched her use it to advance herself professionally. I’ve watched her use it to help advance me professionally. I’ve watched her use it to raise our 3 kids. I simply cannot imagine what life would be like for our family without the strong and soothing tones of a Natchitoches Christmas Belle guiding us along the way.

And therein lies the absolute, unequivocal (perhaps accidental) genius of a 1950’s Natchitoches Christmas Festival Committee.

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The Genius Of The Christmas Belles

Before the cultural revolution of the 1960’s.

Before women began outpacing men in college enrollment.

Before there were 24 female CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies.

Before there were 172 female billionaires.

Before Margaret Thatcher.

Before Hillary Clinton.

Before Oprah Winfrey.

Before all of those things, in 1956, little old Natchitoches doubled down on its investment in women and made a group of young ladies the face of its most valuable franchise.  That’s pretty cool when you stop and think about it.

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For 58 years, Natchitoches has churned out Miss Merry Christmases and Christmas Belles that have gone on to become wildly successful in their chosen professions. Their success is no accident. It came in part from a community that recognized their talent, encouraged their ambition, and taught them how to lead.

The Miss Merry Christmases and Christmas Belles who once served as the teenage ambassadors of the Festival have now grown up to become powerful women. Decades of Miss Merry Christmases and Christmas Belles have created a formidable army of the best and brightest women who are passionately devoted to promoting and protecting the Festival. Many of these women married, had children, and created new generations of Festival lovers.  And so, Natchitoches and its Festival live on for future generations to enjoy, guarded by legions of Miss Merry Christmases and Christmas Belles.

This year’s Festival is more special than most. Natchitoches is celebrating its 300th birthday.  You want to know how a little community survives for 300 years, overcoming the historical odds that cratered thousands of other little communities along the way?

I can give you at least 2 reasons:

Christmas Belles & Steel Magnolias

 

Happy Birthday Holly!