COTR born 40 years ago

Published 10:32 am Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It started as an idea. Maybe that is why some of those instrumental in its inception can scarcely remember when it started. Christmas on the River started as a parade. The event was contained in a day. It was planned for one year. The notion of it still going nearly four decades later and taking up an entire week never crossed the mind of the event’s creators.

“I don’t know when it started, but I think it started in 1972,” Mem Webb, who was instrumental in the event’s creation, said. He was right. The first time a Christmas on the River float rolled down the Tombigbee River was Dec. 1, 1972. And every year since then, the river has seen a parade of lighted floats make its way downstream on the first weekend in December.

“Through the years there has been talk about changing the date,” Webb said. “But we have been blessed with good weather. That weekend has proven to be a good weekend weather wise.”

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That first year was something special. It saw a lot of work from a lot of people, ultimately leading to the first ever Christmas on the River, which featured Cornelia Wallace, then wife of former governor George Wallace. Incidentally, the event’s first grand marshal died in January of this year at the age of 69.

“After the first year or two, I could see that this thing could really bloom into a nice festival that could really last,” Webb said.

The event took its root in conversations between Webb and Barry Collins.

“Demopolis used to have a Christmas parade years ago,” Webb said. “I was talking to Barry Collins one day and said that I thought it would be nice if we could have some kind of parade and utilize our river.”

The idea was not a foreign one to those two men as Collins had witnessed an on-river parade while attending a communications conference in Chicago and Webb had seen something similar as part of the Cotton Carnival in Memphis.

Nobody remembers for certain, but the belief is that Collins dubbed the event “Christmas on the River.” From there the pair, along with Harold Bloom, began enlisting the help of various community organizations and individuals. Chief among them was the former Interact Club.

“It came off with a tremendous bang,” Webb said of the night parade on the river.

“That was the primary, featured event that year. Then we added events for each of the last 35 or 40 years.”

That first year not only set the stage for future events, but also laid the groundwork for how the event would be executed.

From its first day onward, Christmas on the River would forever be a community-wide effort.

“The first year, all the floats were built by volunteers,” Webb said.

“One of the greatest things, I think, about Christmas on the River is that it is a community effort. It takes the whole community. I think when the event is over, you can see the pride. It is a time for people to invite friends down and relatives back. It’s just good, wholesome, family entertainment.”