It was the Yuletide season of 1895, and the Eubank Hotel in Kilmarnock glowed with candlelight and twinkling eyes. Amidst the lilt of banjos and violins, dancers in their finest party attire were swirling about the room when John Armistead Palmer placed a chair beneath the chandelier and standing above the crowd, held a sprig of holly over the head of Miss Cora Brent. When he spoke, a hush came over the room. “I crown thee, Queen Cora, Empress of the Holly Realm,” and with his decree a tradition was born.
To assure that the tradition of the Holly Realm would endure throughout the years, Mr. Palmer traded one of his choice Jersey calves for a beautiful, berry- laden holly tree located on the farm of James Carter along Good Luck Road near the border of Lancaster and Northumberland counties. The deed stated that this tree would be “in trust for the use and benefit of the Queen of the Holly Realm and her duly appointed successors in office for all times.”
From the merriment of those twenty some couples at the Eubank Hotel in 1895 was born a tradition that continues today in Tidewater Virginia’s Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula, a candlelight ball that remains one of the oldest such occasions in America.
By 1900 some one hundred and fifty invited guests danced the night away at the Kilmarnock Town Hall, and the Holly Ball was decreed to be an annual event, complete with the coronation of a new queen each year.
In the early days orchestras from Fredericksburg and Baltimore performed on violin, banjo, piano, and harmonica as guests skipped and frolicked to the Virginia Reel, a lilting waltz, the energetic two-step, and the schottische. As feet tired and shoes tightened, and dancers’ thirst gave way to appetites, sumptuous midnight suppers were served. The final rite
took place at sunrise when “the royal court” convened at the hallowed Holly Tree to watch as the queen’s initials were
carved into its bark.
Through the next 50 plus years the Holly Ball flourished as an annual event with very few exceptions. There was no Holly Ball held in 1902 due to the death of the founder, Mr. Palmer’s, wife. World War I was the cause of a suspension of the Ball from1915 to 1918, as was World War II from 1942 to1945.
There was not always a new queen elected each year. In 1928 there was such spirited canvassing for both of the leading candidates for queen, the young ladies withdrew their nominations and the would-be retiring queen reigned for another year. In 1932 there was no election for a new Queen due to the death of the reigning Queen’s mother just before the Ball, so the present Queen reigned for another year.
Family traditions continued as well. In 1930 the selected Holly Ball Queen was the daughter of Cora Brent, the first Ball’s first queen, and in 1938 one of her granddaughters was crowned. In 1935 the reigning queen was the granddaughter of John A. Palmer. There have been numerous family connections and legacies throughout the Holly Ball’s 118 years, too many to list here.
In 1946 after the end of World War II the Holly Ball returned with its entire splendor. But in the early fifties things started to change and so did the Holly Ball. Private parties, many quite elaborate, were being given before and during the Intermission of the Ball. Many who attended these parties did not return to the Ball and the crowds decreased as a result.
One such party was “The Christmas Assembly” which was formed in 1950. The first “Christmas Assembly,” held in December of that year, was the first debutante presentation in the Northern Neck, and was held at The Tides Inn in Irvington, Virginia. The hotel was closed for the season. This location provided an elegant setting for the debutantes and their families, their escorts and their families, as well as committee members and patrons of the newly formed Tidewater Foundation.
There were seventeen young ladies presented at this first charity ball. That first year all college years were represented but in later years “freshman in college” became the rule. Wearing white ball gowns and gloves and carrying bouquets of boxwood and red carnations, the debutantes descended the staircase with their escorts and were presented in the “View Room”. This year and in each subsequent year the debutantes and their escorts performed a Colonial dance figure
Beneficiaries of the “Assembly” from 1950 to 1957 included repairs to St Mary’s White Chapel Church, interior renovations to the Old Clerk’s Office in Lancaster, and funding for the Tidewater Recreation Center (a new swimming pool recreational facility outside of Kilmarnock).
In 1958 The Christmas Assembly reorganized as “The Tidewater Assembly,” and joined with the Holly Ball Committee to create one main Yuletide event in which debutantes would be presented. This helped to continue the Northern Neck tradition of a young lady’s “first social appearance” being made at the “time-honored Holly Festival Ball.” The merging of these two events essentially saved the original Holly Ball from fading and ensured a social tradition of the Northern Neck, since a Queen would continue to be elected from the debutante group by popular vote. This was a very unique but necessary arrangement in the joining of the two balls, thus providing a thread of history for the event making it significantly different from debutante balls elsewhere in the country.
During this reorganization it was also decided that a tradition of the Christmas Assembly would be honored: that is, through the Tidewater Foundation, Inc. funds resulting from this charity ball would continue to be donated to benefit the community for such worthy causes as scholarships for local students, support for area schools and libraries, and preservation of the area’s historic buildings.
Thus the traditions of the Northern Neck’s beloved Holly Ball were not only preserved but enhanced.
From 1958 to 1990 The Holly Ball (of the new style) took place at two locations. Early in the evening the debutantes were presented to the reigning Queen of The Holly Realm at a dinner at the Indian Creek Yacht and Country Club. Later in the evening they were presented again at the Kilmarnock High School Auditorium at which time a new Queen would be elected and crowned, she would select two attendants, and she would reign as Queen of the Holly Realm until the Holly Ball the following year.
Tradition is born of simplicity and is embellished by time. The Holly Ball is no exception, having changed with the times in size, grandeur, and significance. During the Grand March when the debutantes glide across the ballroom floor in their white gowns, who would not ponder the significance of a tradition which honors grace and elegance.
The town of Kilmarnock, located in Lancaster County at the lower end of Tidewater’s historic Northern Neck, has always been “home” to the Holly Ball. The actual building location has changed often throughout these hundred plus years but the tradition continues now at the present location, Indian Creek Yacht and Country Club, located near Kilmarnock.
Another tradition endures. Ever since the first Holly Ball, beautifully decorated and engraved invitations signaled the elegance of the occasion, with the reigning Queen’s family providing the food, decorations, orator and orchestra for the elaborate and much celebrated gala. Except for the selection of the orator, the Holly Ball Committee has taken over most of these responsibilities.
The original Holly Ball tree in Palmer’s field, which stood right off Good Luck Road, provided the holly for the Queen’s crown each year. Seedlings from this tree were sold to mark the 75th anniversary year of the Holly Ball so The Holly Tree lives on even though it reached its demise during a storm in 1968. At that time a Kilmarnock jeweler used the wood to craft the handle for of a scepter for the queen. He and his wife also donated a new rhinestone Queen’s crown. Used first in 1971, they continue to be used by each years Holly Ball Queen thus continuing the Holly Tree tradition.
Many Holly Ball Queens and debutantes have departed from the Realm. But those who remain will always remember when all eyes in the room were focused in their direction as their fathers presented them. Their memories keep it alive. That’s the way tradition is passed on.
What began as a Yuletide party has grown into an event which requires thousands of hours of planning all year long. As soon as one Ball is over, another one begins. It’s a labor of love as people throughout the community play a part in preserving the Holly tradition. And it’s an event that gives back to the community—not just in memories and photographs, but a charitable spirit that improves the quality of life in the Northern Neck.
Each year the Tidewater Foundation disperses grants to a diverse group of community institutions and agencies located throughout the Northern Neck and Tidewater area. Over the course of the past twenty years, the Tidewater Foundation, through tradition and stewardship, has contributed close to $400,000 to these local entities. The funds for these grants are from the proceeds of the 118 year old Holly Ball.
The 118th Holly Ball will take place on Saturday, December 28, 2013 from 7 PM until midnight at the Indian Creek Yacht and Country Club, Kilmarnock, Virginia. Presentation of the 2013 Debutantes will take place at 8 PM. Queen Elizabeth Lee Rogers of Reedville will reign over the Holly Realm until the new queen is crowned.
The proceeds from this tradition ball will continue to be used to support the Tidewater Foundation’s commitment to cultural enrichment and education in the Northern Neck and Tidewater area.
To view scores of Holly Ball albums and memorabilia, visit The Kilmarnock Museum, Inc., located at 76 North Main Street in Kilmarnock. It is open Thursday through Saturday, from 11 to 3. Phone number is 804-435-9100. To contact The Tidewater Foundation for more information, the address is Post Office Box 363, Irvington, Virginia 22480.