Natchez kicks off season with Santa, snow, Christmas tree lighting

Published 1:29 am Saturday, November 25, 2017


NATCHEZ — The crowds started piling up early around the 30-foot Christmas tree that towered above Main Street Friday night.

Santa Claus led the countdown to what approximately 300 Natchezians had been waiting hours for: the lighting of the downtown Christmas tree.

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The multicolored beads of light are the hallmark beginning of the holiday season, and the tradition has a two-hour drumroll.

First: the gumbo cook-off and festival.

A half-dozen experts in the art of good gumbo set up their steaming vats around 3:30, filling the streets with the smell of seasonings and roux.

One of the competitors, The Pilot House, would go home with the $200 grand prize, while House of Spices took second and Ascension Strong placed third.

The cooks did not know that, however, at 4 p.m., when the crowds began filling the area blocked off for the event.

Families milled slowly along the crowded streets, the scene falling somewhere between a tailgate and a block party.

Some children rode mini carousels or climbed a looming rock wall, while their parents sampled the wares and a few lost balloons floated away.

Cooks were vying for a second competition, too: the prize for best tent.

The tent Come Hell or High Water sported a large, inflated Louisiana State University tiger, which drew in families to take photos and, of course, sample the gumbo.

The tent that won best in show, though, was strung end to end with sparkling tinsel, bows and lights.

The Washington Baptist Church tent, which the crowd voted best in show, was manned by an unexpected face: 9-year-old James Mutka.

Mutka traveled down from Oklahoma to see his grandparents, Joe and Carole Snyder, who were the master chefs behind the tent.

“I like it because we’re raising money for church,” Mutka said.

Mutka and his sister, Victoria, had been hard at work, Carole Snyder said, and ready to see the tree lighting.

The Mutkas were not alone in their anticipation; just a dozen feet away Halle Grace Janette was bouncing up and down, talking quickly and staring at the still dark tree.

“She’s been waiting all day for this,” Lynn Janette, Halle’s mother said. “She’s so excited.”

What did Halle Grace think would happen when the tree was finally lit?

“A big ka-boom,” she said excitedly. “It’s huge.”

Tiffany Hamlin came to the Christmas lighting ceremony last year, she said, but this was the first time her children got to come.

Anthony Bee Jr., 8, Dajah Hamlin, 7, and Beyonce Hamlin, 13, were grouped together approximately 20 feet away from the tree, waiting impatiently for the start.

When the lights finally came on the artificial snow began to pour down on the children, Dajah and Anthony spun around, looking first at the tree and then back again at Tiffany Hamlin.

“It’s humongous,” Anthony Bee Jr. said.

Brian Stretch stood on the corner while the crowd dispersed, twirling his granddaughter — the 2-year-old Genevieve Cassagne — in the falling snow.

His sweatshirt had a simple message: “Merry Christmas.”