Park service presents annual holiday tour

Published 12:18 am Sunday, December 14, 2008

NATCHEZ — At another time of year, the walkways lit by candlelight might have given off a different ambiance, but Saturday they all glowed the same cheerful message — it’s Christmas time at Melrose.

The annual historic Christmas tours at the estate — now operated by the National Park Service — were Friday and Saturday.

During the tours, costumed park guides recreate traditions that were in place the first year the McMurrans, the family who owned Melrose, were in Natchez.

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The actors did not portray anyone in particular, but tried to recreate the general character of the people in 1849, said Timeka Burston with the National Park Service.

In years past, the tour included vignette in which the actors acted out scenes with era-appropriate dialogue, but for the past two years it has been more informational, park guide Jessica Coffman said.

“I just love wearing the costume,” she said.

The tour included the perspectives of men and women, the wealthy and the enslaved.

“Overall, the reactions to the program were very good,” said park guide Gary Ferguson, who was costumed as a gentleman waiting in the house’s drawing room. “Friday night every tour was full.”

During his portion of the tour, Ferguson told visitors about how at Christmas time the owner of an estate might give gifts to his family and allow the household slaves a little leeway.

“During the season the slaves might have gotten some concessions,” he said. “They might have been allowed to visit their families, have parties with dancing and music or even get married.”

But just how gracious those concessions were depended on perspective.

It was only after the master’s holiday merriment was over that slaves were allowed to celebrate, Park Guide Jessica King said.

“Estate slaves worked 365 days a year,” she said.

At the end of the tour, six-year-old Maribeth Cowart, of Natchez, said the tour felt a little bit like going back in time, and she might like to live in a big, old plantation house.

But would she like wearing the old-fashioned dresses?

“Maybe,” she said, pondering. “I don’t know.”