It’s been months since young men showed up on the doorsteps of upstanding families in Pierce County delivering invitations and red roses to unsuspecting young ladies. Now, the event everyone has been preparing for is finally about the happen: Tacoma’s Holiday Cotillion.
That’s right, Tacoma has a very formal gathering where young women who’ve just graduated from high school are “presented” to society at a ball. Long white dresses, red roses, just the right shoes and knowing how to waltz are all requirements for taking part in this annual fete.
Haley Berglund clearly remembers the day 10 years ago, when a young man driving a Porsche, dressed to the nines, showed up at her house.
“I had no idea what was going on. My mom was freaking out because she knew. She was excited. She was like, 'Go to the door, go to the door!' And I’m like, 'This is weird. I’m in my pajamas. I’m not dressed today, Mom.'”
Berglund was selected to take part in Tacoma’s Holiday Cotillion. “This is something not everyone gets to do. It’s an honor,” recalls Berglund.
The Holiday Cotillion is an event that is known among Pierce County’s families that are movers and shakers. These are the people who raise money for charities. They create jobs through their businesses. They are the families that give back to the community.
“My family had a big charity auction for Type 1 diabetes. We raised $2 million. It was neat to see that recognized. It was almost a way to thank them.”
Cotillions and debutante balls started in Europe hundreds of years ago. They were ways high-society families presented young women to prospective husbands.
Like a white wedding dress, the white dresses worn by debutantes were symbols of a bride-to-be’s virginity.
One of the fanciest balls happened in London where young women wearing ostrich feather hats curtseyed before the monarch in Buckingham Palace. The tradition ended in 1958. Too much new money was a part of the mix and Princess Margaret told her sister, Queen Elizabeth II, "We had to put a stop to it. Every tart in London was getting in!"
How did one of these fancy shindigs with European roots end up in the plucky town of Destiny?
No one in Tacoma came up with the idea for a holiday cotillion. A few television producers from New York city thought it up. In September 1961, NBC wrote a letter to the late Marcia Shannon, who was the Sound Life editor of the Tacoma News Tribune.
Producers from NBC were doing a documentary about debutante balls in Philadelphia, New York, Atlanta and Dallas. They wanted to include Tacoma.
The problem was, Tacoma didn’t have a ball. But the city didn’t want to miss out on being a part of the show, so a few of the city’s connected and well heeled created a cotillion from scratch. It was a huge success.
Forty-three girls were presented. But there weren’t any television cameras to record the event. The producers from New York were snowbound in Denver. The documentary was televised in January, but Tacoma was not included.
The cotillion lives on and is now in its 54th year. Glenda Anderson was the chair of the Cotillion committee last year. She says the committee identifies families who have a history of community service, and who also happen to have a daughter who is graduating high school. That process starts in January, almost an entire year from the actual ball.
“We put together a list,” says Anderson. “We review the list, and then when it’s time to invite our families the real fun begins.”
If the invitation is accepted then a series of formal gatherings begins. “First off, in July we have a summer party for mothers and daughters,” says Anderson.
On December 26, there is a Waltz Party.
“And that’s where the father, the girls’ two escorts and the girl learn how to waltz. We have a professional waltz instructor come in.That’s always a fun night for everyone.”
The waltz party was Berglund’s favorite part. For her, it felt like stepping back in time.
“Dancing with my dad was what I remember the most while doing it, and it was really special,” says Burton.
“I got married two years ago,” says Berglund, “And we actually waltzed at my wedding, just a little bit. I don’t think anyone knew. But for our father daughter dance I whispered, ‘Hey do you want to waltz?’ He said sure. So we waltzed to our song a little bit and I saw the video of it and we actually looked pretty good! I learned that from Cotillion.”
The actual Cotillion happens on December 27, this year. The young women will arrive wearing white, floor length dresses. They’ll don white gloves and carry bouquet of red roses in a sterling silver holder called a tussy mussy.
The young ladies are usually accompanied by two escorts. They are encouraged to choose young men whose families have done community service. This is not a romantic event and the committee strongly advises the young women to not invite their boyfriends.
“We always say, boyfriends don’t make good escorts. These pictures last forever and we don’t want on your mantle, the young man you no longer like because he’s no longer your boyfriend.”
This year there are only 25 girls participating, a little more than half of the number in the past. The Cotillion is entering a period of decline. In a world were digital invitations are the norm, some of the families who receive the paper invitations don’t seem to know what to do with them and never even mail in their reply on the response cards. Anderson says it’s a tough sell right now.
“We hear that they are their own young lady and they do not be presented to presented by their father. The whole concept of being presented. It’s a little old fashioned.”
Anderson, and the rest of the committee, is looking at what changes they can make to the Cotillion so that it appeals to the modern girl and the modern family, but without sacrificing too much of the tradition. Perhaps changing the date to before Christmas would help? Maybe more people would say “yes” if the invitation was followed up by a phone call?
Haley Berglund is now 28 years old. She and her husband do not have any children yet. But, if they have a girl, Burton knows that because she was chosen for Cotillion, they will be a “legacy family” which means it’s almost guaranteed that her daughter will be invited.
And just as her parents did, Berglund will keep the whole thing a secret until that young man wearing a tux arrives on the doorstep.
“Well yeah my parents didn’t say a word. And then they call you mom and dad and arrange for this all to happen. They know when they’re gonna come so they try to keep you at home. They have to kind of arrange it. It’s almost like they’re planning an engagement or something and they have to orchestrate it all. That will be fun. That will be crazy.”
By the time that happens, Berglund hopes to be following in her parents’ footsteps. She wants to give back to the community in a way that her future children will be proud to celebrate. Whether Tacoma’s Holiday Cotillion will still be around by the time her children are ready to be “presented” remains to be seen.