A Louisiana Christmas.
Lutcher’s Festival of the Bonfires
CHERYL GERBER PHOTOGRAPH
Funny how those five standard Christmas-light colors are worn just a little differently on every city and village. Every Main Street, every neighborhood, even a single strand of lights around the door of a rural cottage, is a unique and wondrous scene, and all our eyes become child’s eyes for the duration of the season. Here’s lookin’ at you, kid, and here’s hoping you can break away to enjoy some of Louisiana’s Christmas tours and traditions.
Festival of Lights. Although Natchitoches has succumbed to popular demand and added many days to its nationally famous lighting schedule (now Thanksgiving through New Year’s), the old “Christmas begins in Natchitoches” slogan traditionally refers to that city’s Festival of Lights, with its two parades and giant fireworks show.
The 83rd annual festival is set for Dec. 5, beginning downtown with a day of water-skiing shows, aerobatics, music and food for the crowds along the west bank of Cane River-Lake (an abandoned loop of Red River). After the morning’s junior parade and big afternoon parade, stake out a waterfront spot with a quilt or tarp before you head for the shops and galleries of Front and Second streets.
At twilight it’s time to munch the last of your meat pies and snuggle into your blanket for the fireworks show, launched from the opposite shore, which fills the little span of sky above the high, grassy banks of the erstwhile river. After the dazzling finale, watch as a magical light switch – who knows where? – transforms the old downtown bridge and Front Street into the colors of the season. Later in the evening, with watercraft departed and the crowds diminished, visit the west bank to look back upon that panorama, now doubled by its reflection in the still waters of the lake.
Visit any night of the season to enjoy the lights, with frequent lakeside caroling events, carriage rides and candlelight home tours.
Trail of Lights. The Trail of Lights through six Louisiana and Texas cities is a favorite annual trek for many, but we recommend some zigzagging. Begin by driving west from Natchitoches to Hodges Gardens (south of Many on U.S. 171) to see the lighted lanes and lakefront of this 4,700-acre “Garden in the Forest,” and then head north on 171 to Shreveport with quick stops to see the lights at the old sawmill town of Fisher and the courthouse square in Mansfield.
In Shreveport and Bossier City a month-long roster of Christmas on the Red events begins Nov. 24 with the lighting of the downtowns and riverfronts, including the Nov. 25 Bossier Christmas Parade; the Nov. 28 Rockets over the Red fireworks spectacular; and a series of concerts, home tours and such.
West of town via Interstate 20, a million lights announce Christmas in Roseland at the American Rose Center, with nightly choral, dance and symphonic performances. From here the trail heads west to Texas: Marshall, Kilgore and wonderful Jefferson (once the terminus of New Orleans/Shreveport steamboat lines).
North by Northeast. Our northeastern parishes are lively at holiday time, from Tallulah’s age-old tradition of lighting the trees of Roundaway Bayou to Ruston’s lighting and concert series in City Park.
Ruston’s Cedartown Marketplace kicks off the “shopping season” Nov. 6-8 at the Civic Center, with the downtown Holiday Arts Tour that same weekend, and the town’s big Christmas parade is 6 p.m. on Dec. 4. In nearby Gibsland, Santa arrives by train for a week of activities at the Old-Time Christmas on Main Street festival, Dec. 5-12.
Monroe’s Christmas on the River begins with the big Christmas Village attraction at the Children’s Museum (Nov. 28-Dec. 20), where kids can mail their letters to Santa, make their own ornaments and even ice-skate around a snowman! Then come the big parade on Dec. 5 and a month of art walks, lavish décor at the Biedenharn Museum, Cottonland Christmas events at Strauss Theater, carriage rides, the Christmas flotilla and fireworks.
Just downstream, Columbia kicks off Christmas with its evening parade at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 5, and Lake Providence, as always, will be well-lighted by hundreds of trees around the town’s famous oxbow lake.
Crossroads Christmas. The 12 Nights of Christmas in the Red River cities of Alexandria and Pineville begin with a Dec. 5 Holiday Magic night, with downtown fireworks and festivities, and end with the traditional Dec. 20 Holiday Light Safari at the Alexandria Zoo. Packed in between are such events as the Old Fashion Christmas at Kent Plantation House, a life-size gingerbread house and the two cities’ big parades on Dec. 12 and 13.
Capital Christmas. One of the great landmarks of Louisiana’s Christmas is the lighted State Capitol, soaring 34 stories above its lighted formal garden. Dec. 4 begins the season’s celebration with the big North Boulevard Festival of Lights, walking distance from the Capitol, with a schedule stuffed fuller than a Christmas stocking with music, fireworks, arts-and-crafts sellers, ice-skating, caroling and a mini-Christmas parade.
LSU’s traditional Tuesday candlelight caroling at Memorial Tower is set for 5 p.m. on Dec. 1, and the big Baton Rouge parade is Dec. 12.
Across the river in Port Allen, the Rivertown Christmas Festival is set for Dec. 12; downriver in Gonzales the theme of the Dec. 13 parade is “All I Want for Christmas”; and upriver in St. Francisville, Dec. 5-6 brings the caroling and open-house shopping of its Christmas in the Country festival and parade.
Morganza’s “open house and lighting” weekend begins with a Saturday-night street dance, and Sunday’s celebration at the town hall includes a gumbo cookoff and cake bakeoff.
Bayou Country. Heading down Bayou Lafourche from Donaldsonville (whose Christmas parade is Dec. 12), crisscross the bayou to see such highlights as Napoleonville on the west bank, handsomely decorated Madewood Plantation on the east bank and the 200-year-old west bank raised cottage at the E.D. White State Historic Site.
“Down the bayou” towns Larose and Lockport have parades on Dec. 5, and Thibodaux’s big parade is Dec. 6.
Take the Louisiana 311 route from Thibodaux to pass several decorated plantation houses along Little Bayou Black on your way to Houma, where the Terrebonne Museum (old Southdown Plantation) will be decked out in greenery throughout the season. Houma and nearby Chauvin have annual Christmas parades (call (985) 868-2732).
U.S. 90 (the future Interstate 49) offers an elevated swampland ride to Morgan City, the starting point for a drive up legendary Bayou Teche. Call (800) 256-2931 for a Cajun coast Christmastime schedule of events, such as Patterson’s Idlewild Plantation Lighting and Franklin’s Christmas under the Lampposts festival, and enjoy the decorated plantations, main streets and town squares all along the way.
New Iberia begins the season with its Christmas Symphony at St. Peters Church on Nov. 29 at 3 p.m. and a parade on Dec. 1, followed by its Christmas tour of Shadows-on-the-Teche and other historic district homes. Nearby Delcambre presents its Christmas on the Bayou boat parade on Dec. 13.
Old St. Martin’s Church is thoroughly charming at Christmas, and St. Martinville combines its Christmas lighting with a traditional St. Lucy (Lucia) Lighting Festival on Dec. 6, with games, crafts booths, a parade and a candlelight Mass filling the day until the 6 p.m. lighting of the church square.
Acadiana Santa. Lafayette boasts two unusual lighting attractions. Acadian Village is a half-dozen vintage Cajun cabins assembled to depict a 19th-century bayou country settlement, and its Christmas Comes Alive is a sound-and-light show that fills every structure with live and mechanical Christmas characters. Across town, children who visit the Vermilionville theme park can have a fireside chat with Papa and Mama Noel beside the old-time Christmas tree in their rustic Acadian cabin.
Abbeville’s famous Lumieres du Village features an old-style lighting of the town’s two squares beginning Dec. 3. Opelousas presents the lighting of its Old Village (La Vieux Village, a walk into the past) on Dec. 4, and the town’s Children’s Parade rolls on Dec. 10.
Lake Charles is your obvious headquarters for exploring the seasonal doings of our southwest region, beginning with the festivities and fireworks of its own Light up the Lake festival and boat parade on Dec. 5. To find more parades, just pick a direction and take a short drive.
To the west, Vinton’s parade is Dec. 4, Dec. 5 brings Starks’ parade and Sulphur’s Christmas Under the Oaks celebration (complete with the larger-than-life balloon figures of Balloons on Parade), and they’ll be marching in Westlake on Dec. 12. To the north, the parades of DeQuincy’s Taste of the Holidays festivities and DeRidder’s Miracle on Washington Street festival are both Dec. 5. To the east, the town of Iowa’s parade is Dec. 1. Dec. 5 brings a festival, parade and gumbo cookoff in Jennings, and there are parades in Lake Arthur and Moss Bluff on Dec. 12.
Crescent City Christmas. Yuletide often endows New Orleans with its finest weather of the year, perfect for carriage-riding and courtyard-dining. Costumed actors stroll the French Quarter’s banquettes portraying historic characters, while local carols such as Louis Armstrong’s “Christmas in New Orleans” and Louie Prima’s “What Would Santa Claus Say?” can be heard in shops and cafés.
Decorations are everywhere – on the streetcars and steamboats, in hotel lobbies and restaurants, many of which, by the way, still preserve the Creole tradition of special reveillon menus (festive meals for special occasions such as Christmas Eve and New Year’s).
Visit City Park to stroll, carriage-ride or train-ride yourself through the famous Celebration in the Oaks display of giant lighted ornaments in the centuries-old live oaks, and don’t forget the Patio Planters’ candlelit caroling in Jackson Square on the evening of Dec. 20.
North of Lake Pontchartrain, the holiday spirit arrives in our southeastern parishes on Dec. 4 when the Christmas lights go on in Ponchatoula, America’s Antiques City, with many of the shops keeping later hours throughout the season. On Dec. 5, “right up the tracks” in Hammond, the Christmas parade winds from the Southeastern University Center through the campus and city at 5 p.m., and Ponchatoula’s parade is 4 p.m. on Dec. 12.
The historic log cabins of Mile Branch Settlement (parish fairgrounds) in Franklinton open their doors for a Pioneer Christmas on Thanksgiving weekend, and the wondrous lights of Bogalusa’s Cassidy Park shine from Dec. 1 until Christmas.
Fires of Joy. Port Allen’s Christmas festivities on Dec. 12 and Lutcher’s Dec. 11-13 Festival of the Bonfires both feature previews of the so-called feux-de-joie (the towering bonfires that line the river levees on Christmas Eve), as do such plantations as Magnolia Mound in Baton Rouge and, near Vacherie, Oak Alley and Laura.
It’s only when Christmas Eve finally arrives, however, that you can see the spectacle of dozens of these levee-top blazes, curving alongside the river in the darkness, lighting the way, some say, for Papa Noel. The winter-solstice bonfires of Europe migrated, it’s rumored, to the “German coast” of the Mississippi River in the 18th century, but the attachment of the practice to Christmas Eve has been attributed to the mid-19th-century priests of old Jefferson College in Convent (now a Jesuit retreat house called Manresa, still the handsomest cluster of Greek Revival structures on the river).
Take Interstate 10 to the Sunshine Bridge exit (Louisiana 22), turning almost immediately to follow Louisiana 70 to the river, and take the east bank River Road downstream through Convent and Lutcher. The first few miles will give the feel of those sparsely populated early years, with only an occasional bonfire, but they become surprisingly numerous once past the beautifully lighted Manresa Retreat House.