NEW ORLEANS — Eternal hope is the overarching message of Christmas: A child born in a barn changed the world.
Charlie LeBlanc was one of those hope-filled New Orleans Catholics — a regular communicant, a longtime member of the Knights of Columbus and a straight shooter — who for decades ran the Christ in Christmas Committee billboard campaign with deep faith, good humor and back-of-the-envelope math.
When LeBlanc’s home was flooded after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, he never lost his faith that someone bigger was in control.
“I don’t know,” he said in 2006 as he prepared to rebuild, shortly before his death. “I’m 85 years old, and I just got approved for a 30-year mortgage.”
LeBlanc was one in a line of New Orleans Catholics who since 1952 have created the most successful Christmas billboard campaign in the country.
This year, more than 60 “Keep Christ in Christmas” billboards sponsored by Catholic schools, Knights of Columbus councils and women’s auxiliaries, businesses and individuals sprouted up after Thanksgiving in the Greater New Orleans area. The billboards, emphasizing the spiritual meaning of Christmas, are put up by Outfront, the company that has been involved in the program since 1952.
Another seven to 10 electronic billboards with the “Keep Christ in Christmas” message will be running around the clock near the city on the Northshore, courtesy of Lamar.
“I’ve mentioned it to people in other states, and nobody’s done it to the extent that we have in the Archdiocese of New Orleans,” said Stephen Hart, who succeeded LeBlanc as committee chair in 2002 and has witnessed the number of billboards grow from the low to mid 20s to more than 60.
“Other areas might have a board here or there, two or three, but nobody’s got the size program that we have,” he told the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.
Hart has fond memories of LeBlanc, who in the old days would scribble notes to himself to keep track of which school or church parish had donated money for a billboard and also where each billboard would be placed.
“Charlie always used to put in his letters — ‘The Christ in Christmas Committee’ and then in parenthesis he’d put ‘(The best in the country)'” Hart said, laughing. “He was dealing with all these printers and the billboard people. He knew that nobody was doing it to the extent that we were.”
Brenda Farrell, a senior account executive at Outfront, has been a member of the committee for nearly 20 years and recalled how LeBlanc could dazzle her with his knowledge of costs and billboard locations.
“I could use a calculator all day long, but his math was better than my calculator,” said Farrell, noting that the billboards reach 80% of the metro market. “He knew everything like the back of his hand.”
Former committee member Blanche Comiskey recalled being asked to join the mostly male group in the late 1960s. She said Francis Doyle, a local bank executive, had started the effort because he felt the secularization of Christmas, with the emphasis on buying things, was overshadowing the spiritual message.
As a leading member of the Council of Catholic School Cooperative Clubs — the association of parents’ clubs across the archdiocese — Comiskey recruited more schools to sponsor billboards. Dozens of schools continue to do so.
“The schools really do cooperate, and if one school can’t afford a whole board, they can combine with another school,” Comiskey said. “It was wonderful to see the reaction. It means that sometimes volunteer work is rewarding. Imagine the little kids who might have put in a little money for a billboard. They had to feel special.”
The cost of sponsoring a “Keep Christ in Christmas” billboard is $430. Although all reservations have been made for this year, there are always openings for next year, Hart said.
“We’ve had a number of people thank us for doing the ministry — for getting the message out and for putting it at the front of people’s attention,” Hart said. “We get handwritten notes thanking us for our efforts. It’s nice to get a handwritten note.”
In the old days, the sponsorship “snipes” — narrow taglines at the bottom of the board identifying the sponsoring organization — had to be hand-painted. Now the billboard paper is produced using digital artwork, making the job a lot easier, Hart said.
Even with COVID-19, the numbers are stronger than ever.
“I was amazed that we have more this year than we had last year,” said Hart, who is looking forward to a more robust Christmas celebration this year.
“I’m hoping what the billboards do is bring back the family celebration and the real meaning of Christmas, where people can celebrate together,” he said. “This whole isolation — where parents are isolated in their home and often couldn’t visit their grandkids because they were afraid for their own safety — hopefully will all be over.”
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Editor’s Note: More information on the Christmas billboard campaign can be found at keepchristinchristmasnola.org.
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Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans.