On Saturday, February 4, the good citizens of one eastern Missouri town will be reeling in the years … as in doing the Virginia reel, the Paddle Dance, Schottische, and other dances from a bygone era. And while they’re kicking up their heels, these revelers will be wearing French colonial costumes.

Photo courtesy of The King’s Ball

Settled by the French in the early 1700s, Ste. Genevieve, Mo., is Missouri’s oldest European settlement. Back then, the early Catholic settlers looked forward to the King’s Ball or Bal de Roi, marking the traditional end of the Christmas season. Celebrating the Epiphany or Twelfth Night, the town’s colonial residents, area farmers, trappers, Indians, and slaves celebrated with music, dancing, and food. The highlight of the night was the selection of a royal couple to represent the town at different activities for the next year.

In the past, the King’s Ball was celebrated in French communities on both sides of the Mississippi River. Today, it’s still held on the afternoon of the Epiphany at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, Mo., and that same evening in the early French settlement of Prairie Du Rocher, Il. This early French tradition continues in Ste. Genevieve on the first Saturday in February so revelers on both sides of the river can attend one other’s events.

According to ball organizer Mickey Koetting, the King’s Ball was originally held in the home of Ste. Genevieve’s oldest female resident, but as time went by, that tradition faded. Today partygoers fill the local VFW Hall, the largest hall available to accommodate the crowd.

Bill Naeger, a local character, and freelance photographer is usually the event’s master of ceremonies. In the past his wife, Patti, with whom he’s published a photo book about the town, Ste. Genevieve, A Leisurely Stroll Through History, would lead Les Petit Chanteurs, a group of children who sing French carols and folk songs as an opening act at the ball.

At 7 pm, the dancing begins. Fiddler Dennis Stroughmatt, along with fellow musicians Doug Hawf and Greg Biglerand, and L’Esprit Creole, will perform, playing traditional Illinois Creole music. Deborah Hyland will be the professional caller and her instructions will walk couples through the steps of each dance.

Photo courtesy of Robert Mueller

During the first intermission, the new King will be selected. Like other European Epiphany celebrations, a Galette des Rois was baked, with a bean hidden in it. Today, the spiced “King Cake” has a plastic baby Jesus hidden in it, in lieu of a bean. One King Cake is served to the adult men; a second to the teenage boys. Whoever finds the plastic baby Jesus becomes the king and junior attendant, respectively. The king then chooses a queen and they reign over the next year’s festivities such as the French Heritage Festival and the Holiday Christmas Festival.

The newly-crowned king and queen are escorted by costumed “milice” across the dance floor, while the audience applauds and bows before them. (The Milice Française, or simply Milice, is a citizens’ militia, a nod to the paramilitary organization created by the Vichy regime to help fight against the French Resistance during World War II).

Special attendants were selected to assist the queen and king promenade behind them. The honorary titles of Le Chevalier and La Dame of Ste. Genevieve is awarded to recognize individuals who have made significant contributions to the local community. The 2023 titles are being bestowed upon Paul and Mary Hassler this year.

In Leap Years, the roles are reversed and the female guests sample the cake resulting in a queen for the new year, who then chooses a king. Fun fact: In December of 2015, AAA Midwest Traveler recognized the Ste. Genevieve Queen’s Ball is an official Midwest Travel Treasure.

Costumes are encouraged and most attendees do wear some type of traditional or formal wear. French peasant attire can easily be put together: Women and girls can wear a white blouse and peasant skirt. Men and boys might wear a white shirt, calf-length pants (rolled-up sweatpants work well), and long white soccer socks.
Proceeds from the King’s Ball benefit the Foundation for Restoration of Ste. Genevieve. So why wait another minuet – uh, minute – get your tickets now.

For a “taste” of this traditional event, click here.