Culture // 5 min Read

50 Years of Christmas

Written by Tim Wood; Photography courtesy of Dianne Reynolds's Archives

Nov 30, 2021

When I first moved to Bluffton in 2004, I was a bit lost. The job I’d moved south for did not work out as planned. The silver lining: that job brought me to the 29910 often, and my wife and I thought it was a good place to land while we decided if we were staying down south or returning to New England.

A few weeks into living here, on the first Saturday of December, we went to the Bluffton Christmas Parade. Right then and there that I knew I had found my people. Not only were we staying here, but also my wife and I knew this would be our adult hometown, where we wanted our kids to grow up and where we wanted to dive cannonball style into the community. The eclectic floats, the excitement and energy, the overwhelming shows of giving and togetherness on display that day—we just knew: this was our tribe.

This is my falling-in-love story, but I know it’s far from unique.
For 50 years, the Bluffton Christmas Parade has showcased the good, the silly, and the personality of this town. It has served as an annual love letter to its people, a raucous and ear-to-ear, smile-inducing good time.

This year, Bluffton will celebrate the golden anniversary of a simple idea. Back in 1971, then-mayor Grady Messex thought the 1-square-mile town needed a little pick-me-up, so he called on the one person he knew he could trust to nail an epic undertaking like a Christmas parade.

For 50 years, the Bluffton Christmas Parade has showcased the good, the silly, and the personality of this town.

Dianne Reynolds was known as a connector of people around town (her husband, Cecil, served as both the police chief and the fire chief of Bluffton, at one time). She took the task of starting the parade as an honor and a sacred responsibility.

“The kids of this town especially needed some holiday fun. We had all the Scouts (Cub, Boy, and Girl) marching, kids wrapped in gifts, antique cars, horse and buggies,” Dianne said of the parade’s humble beginnings. “We went to Town Hall after; the kids got fruit and nuts and pictures with Santa.”

Dianne invited Brantley Harvey to be the first parade grand marshal—
a man who would later go on to become South Carolina’s lieutenant governor. Over the first few years, Dianne’s persistent invites combined with the draw of the May River and the Lowcountry attracted many rising politicians.

“David Beasley rode in the parade before he was governor. Strom and Nancy Thurmond came every year and were so appreciative to be included,” said Dianne, who organized an army of volunteers to create an event that locals quickly insisted become an annual holiday staple.

Dianne continued growing the parade as organizer through 1975 and continued volunteering with the parade committee into the early 1990s. When town officials were looking for a new organizer, they turned to recent European transplant Babbie Guscio, a creative and vivacious soul whose joie de vivre stood out in a town with a then-population just over 400 residents.

“We lived in Paris for six months. My husband, Don, and I thought it would be forever, but it was just too expensive,” she said. “Then we found Bluffton, and it truly was the next-best thing. I instantly fell in love.”

Babbie would go on to open The Store in 1978, a fixture on Bluffton’s Calhoun Street for “funky and fabulous finds,” as she puts it.
She later founded the iconic Bluffton Village Festival, but the Christmas Parade was truly the first place she got to imprint her unique signature on an event.

“I said, ‘Y’all don’t know what you’re getting yourself into.’ I loved the parade, but I wanted to show off more of the characters around town.
I asked if I could loosen things up a bit, and they agreed.”

During Babbie’s time as organizer, the parade earned national recognition as one of the most eclectic parades in all of America. One sign of the approach that skewered conformity: there wasn’t just one Santa in the parade, but often a dozen. And most would get dressed in the meat cooler at Scott’s Meat Market. “It was the most central staging area,” she said, “right close to the start of the parade, but there were some bare-bummed Santas in that cooler for sure.”

“It was the most central staging area, Right close to the start of the parade, but there were some bare-bummed Santas in that cooler for sure.”

Babbie spent plenty of postage courting celebrities, including The Lone Ranger and wrestler Lash LeRoux. She always invited the president and has pleasant rejection letters from the likes of Jimmy Carter. But she did draw the mayors of five different Blufftons from across the US to the parade one year. “They came from everywhere, and we had a grand ol’ time. I mean, why not shoot for the moon with some crazy ideas?” Babbie said. “It’s the end of the year, a time to salute surviving another year, get excited for the next one, and just always let loose.
I mean, it was anything goes.”

The tone was often set by those labeled dignitaries, including former mayor George Heyward riding on a garbage truck dressed as a buzzard in ladies’ stockings (the bird was a town mascot he set as mayor and a sight that often infuriated fellow former mayor and much more prim and proper Leslie Marmaduke Teel).

And town folk have gladly followed Heyward’s lead. School teacher
Cyndi Price started the Bluffton Ladies Drill Team, a crew of women sporting power drills while performing dance routines; the mid-’80s brought the Baby Brigade, a group of dads pushing babies in decorated strollers. There have been golf carts, pirate ship floats, and the Bubba Ballet troupe, a bunch of burly dudes dressing in camo and pink tutus dancing to
The Nutcracker. And then there’s the candy. Halloween, eat your heart out. Literal tons of confections have been thrown from floats to onlookers through the past five decades.

Babbie was the ringleader for 15 years until she “couldn’t get away with doing it the way [she] wanted to anymore.” The town grew, and though the cultural tides turned a bit more buttoned-up, town officials still fostered a family-style Mardi Gras vibe with a few more limits and rules.

“The local marching bands, the outfits, the zaniness and happiness, it’s everything that Bluffton represents. I am so proud to be part of a town that has earned a national spotlight celebrating eccentricity with this event,” said current mayor Lisa Sulka. “We’re so excited to hit this milestone. While we are implementing additional safety precautions, we promise to give our residents and guests a day of fun, candy, and many Santas.”

Mark your calendars for the 50th annual Bluffton Christmas Parade on December 4. We’ll see you there.

Read the original story in the Holiday edition of The Bluff magazine.