Donkey Discord

Christmas in St. Charles gets a commercial sheen

St. Charles

October was a good news-bad news month for Venetia McEntire.

In the middle of her St. Charles bed and breakfast's best month ever, McEntire got word she'd no longer be allowed to ride a donkey down Main Street on the first Saturday in December, pretending to be the Mother of Christ during the city's annual Los Posadas celebration.

At least 4,000 onlookers gather each year to celebrate Los Posadas, a Latin-American tradition co-opted by St. Charles to commemorate Mary and Joseph's journey to the manger where Jesus was born.

Since its inception in 1979, the event has featured a volunteer Mary and Joseph, portrayed for the last dozen years by McEntire and her father, Paul Mydler.

With Mydler on foot and McEntire astride a donkey, the pair seeks shelter at four "inns" along Main Street, where they are verbally denied access by thoroughfare tenants acting as innkeepers — beginning with Mydler's wife V'Anne at Boone's Lick Trail Inn. The trek ultimately concludes at a makeshift manger at Frontier Park on the Missouri River shore.

"My wife would come out on the porch, and I would say, 'My name is Joseph, is there any room at the inn?'" recalls Paul Mydler, who opened his family's B&B in 1987 after painstakingly restoring the circa-1840s lodge to vintage Colonial grandeur. "She'd say, 'No,' and then we'd move on."

For the most part, the procession has proceeded without a hitch — except for the year of the antsy jackass.

"One year, we had a really skittish donkey," explains McEntire. "He was afraid of manholes, so he'd start running in circles every time we'd get near one and knock me off balance."

While that ride was a rough one, it took a heavy-handed bureaucratic maneuver to knock McEntire out of her saddle for good.

In mid-October, Jim Davis of St. Charles Christmas Traditions, a subsidiary of the South Main Preservation Society that sponsors a month's worth of Christmas-related events beginning the day after Thanksgiving, informed the Mydlers and other Los Posadas volunteers that paid professional actors would replace them on December 3.

"I come to this event from a professional theater background," says Davis, whose organization receives $50,000 annually from the city's Convention and Visitors Commission. "Down through the years we've tried to upgrade the event."

Specifically, Davis claims members of the assembled Los Posadas throng have groused about not being able to hear the actors along the route — in particular, the Mydlers.

"Paul and the others just didn't understand that the microphones had to be right up to their mouths to be heard," he explains, adding that all actors will be paid at a rate of $10 per hour. "My committee hopes that this year, by using actors who are used to using such equipment, the experience will be able to be enjoyed by more of our visitors."

When told of the rationale for his ouster, Paul Mydler chuckles.

"I can remember one year when the speakers didn't work and I was the only one they could hear," says the former drill sergeant.

"I'm extremely upset by it," fumes McEntire. "They should have let us know more than a month before the event."

"It disappoints me, because I think Christmas Traditions has been about tradition, and the Mydlers are a long-standing tradition," says Gene Wood, whose family operates Cobblestone, a South Main shop that sells hand-crafted reproductions of Colonial-era furniture. "I just hate to see it become more of a theatrical production than a community tradition."

Says long-time Main Street tenant Archie Scott: "There are changes, and that's part of the process. But the reasons they're giving [for jettisoning the Mydlers] are a little ridiculous. We're rooted in sound, non-commercial Christmas traditions. This is mall stuff."

It seems the only volunteer who will maintain his decades-long role (as Yule Log transporter) in the processional is Scott, regarded by Main Street merchants as a founder of the Colonial district Southern Living dubbed "Williamsburg West."

Shortly after arriving on Main Street in 1966 — when it was, as he puts it, "derelict and run down" — Scott was elected head of the South Main Preservation Society (Gene Wood and Paul Mydler are also past SMPS presidents). A few years later, the first Los Posadas was staged.

"By 1979, it drew about 1,000 spectators who wanted to participate in the burning of the Yule Log," reminisces Scott. "That's when the Los Posadas pageant began."

"It was people who belonged to the Society, cleaned up the street, pulled weeds and picked up trash," adds Paul Mydler. "And then we'd just have this little celebration. My God, it's grown over the years."

As these folks see it, any split from Los Posadas' roots, however it's couched, represents a callous divergence from tradition that is emblematic of a broader threat to the street's character.

"I think there is a constant threat to get away from our roots on Main Street," complains Scott. "The area was built on its solid history and heritage. People come to visit because of the architecture and buildings, and shopping is all part of it. But now there seems to be unending emphasis placed on festivals and more nightlife."

To Scott, Wood and the proprietors of Boone's Lick Trail Inn, this expanded vision is polluting the street's simple, successful concoction of Huck Finn history and mom-'n'-pop commerce.

"The mall paradigm just doesn't work here," says Wood.

"I operate a quaint bed and breakfast," says McEntire. "Others want a Laclede's Landing atmosphere that attracts a much younger crowd. And that's not where I'd like to see our district go."

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