Each year on a Friday evening early in December, hundreds of people of all ages fill downtown Ponchatoula to enjoy “Christmas Lighting” – but how many know the story behind the event and the beautiful lights that stay on throughout the season?
It began late one night in 1995 when new City Councilman C. W. Kinchen and his wife, Mary Barbara, were driving past Ponchatoula City Hall and saw Mayor Julian Dufreche on top of the building attempting to decorate with a few strands of Christmas lights.
After asking how they could help, the idea was born: The next year, instead of one man on a roof and a few businesses with a few lights in a few windows on dark nights — involve the whole community for a celebration of the season while delighting in that old-time home-town feeling.
The purpose was twofold: “1. To create Christmas in Ponchatoula for children and 2. To encourage locals to visit the antique stores that night to realize what we have and return later to shop.”
The mayor caught the vision and named them to head the lighting project, giving them free rein to do whatever they wished.
Having seen the beauty of using only clear lights in Williamsburg, Virginia, they were off and running early in 1996, visiting store owners to ask if they would decorate their windows, even buildings if possible. They never asked these merchants for donations but began knocking on doors of other businesses, organizations, and individuals to participate by giving.
The community eagerly began to donate money toward new decorations and needed materials to refurbish old ones. Everyone felt a part of the project and even some on limited income wrote notes of appreciation, enclosing smaller gifts to go along with the larger ones.
From various storage places, dusty, musty, rusty old decorations were dragged out and volunteers joined the Kinchen’s at night after work to remove strings of lights and broken bulbs before cleaning, sanding and painting heavy metal frames that at some time had hung from light posts. The eight-foot doves seen now were stripped of old fringe and painted white to show up better with new clear lights.
The first “Santa’s Elves” to volunteer were C. J. and Mary Scandurro, Milton and Dot Hill, Corrine “Dee” Jacob, Lucy Mirando, Alton and Gay Brignac and Kathryn Martin.
NODOCO staff members, Keith and Jeff, constructed the long stringers that reach across the main street. These were unrolled from huge wooden spools and stretched from one end to the other of the Community Center gym. The Elves, on hands and knees, crawled along the floor, securing the lines together before adding bulbs so electrician Milton Hill could complete the ends with plugs. City worker Don Boudoin made boxes with “eyes” on utility poles so the lines could be plugged into sockets instead of wired into live power lines. He was joined by Richard Fletcher to work with Entergy.
Mayor Louis Tallo lent Hammond’s bucket truck after hours as the lights were hung at night.
L. E. Wallace and Linda Scarbrough DePaula greatly promoted the lighting, especially on TV, and took on the town locomotive to decorate. The train won the Show Stopper Award each year. (Other awards would be for “best use of white lights on building” and “window display”.)
Realizing there needed to be a special time of celebration, Mrs. Kinchen planned that event. Most lights would already be on, but those on the cypress trees alongside the railroad track would be saved for the “throw-the-switch” occasion.
As excitement spread, so did participation: downtown businesses offered to open their doors to the public with snacks, meals, and family-friendly beverages. Those with parking lots or yards made ready to host all the performing groups. (Berryland Motors, City Hall, Collinswood Museum, Country Market, Fleur de Lis, Jackson-Vaughan Insurance…)
Gloria Tucker McCarthy made bows. Fred Cutrer did welding. PHS Band Director Teddy Forrest asked, “When do you want me?” Colonel James Hulsey and Gunner Ira Brown’s Junior Marines all stood at attention when Mrs. Kinchen visited their class. “It’s for you,” Brown explained.
Jude Wilson’s PHS Chorus joined in as well as Claudia Landry with their band and dance crew. Reeves, Tucker, and Vinyard Schools sent singing groups. Gerline Melancon led St. Joseph bell choir and Angela Pevey, her Girl Scouts.
Santa Claus showed up. Folks like Hezzie Holden with daughter Mary June (Mrs. Claus), George Peltier and C. J. Scandurro always saw to it Santa was on time. (In fact, one year when Mrs. Kinchen was recovering from surgery and couldn’t attend the big event, Santa came directly from the North Pole to her house on his way to see the children downtown!)
Susan McKneely donated her mother’s Christmas tree, so large that city workers moved it by trailer to City Hall. In the lobby, Linda Drake, Tess Beckler, and the Kinchen’s decorated it and Susan was asked to turn on its lights.
The railroad agreed to slow trains passing and the Police Department directed traffic.
One stipulation the Kinchen’s made was, that to avoid the event’s becoming political, no one is recognized during the ceremony. Only after five years, when Entergy sold an available bucket truck to the city, was Mayor Tallo thanked publicly at Mayor Dufreche’s request. The Kinchen’s never allowed their own names to be mentioned in the ten years they served.
“This was all done as an act of love for Ponchatoula by many people,” Mrs. Kinchen explained in a recent interview.
But Mayor Bob Zabbia says, “If it had not been for C. W. and Mary Barbara Kinchen, we would not have had these many years of what has become a beautiful tradition for our city, its residents, and its visitors.”
We join the mayor in paying tribute to this wonderful couple for their longtime dedication and service.
(How fitting that years before, when little eleven-month-old Mary Barbara saw her family’s decorated and lit Christmas tree, she spoke her first word – not the usual “Mama” or “Dada”, but “Lights”!)