Traveler: A Holiday Trail of Lights
Christmas Around the State
Faux snow, Monroe
At Christmastime folks take pride in the decorations of their own homes, their own rural roads or city streets and then enjoy taking drives to see and compare the observances of the season in other towns. Most have well-established Yule traditions of their own – some unique, all worth sharing – and five of our merry municipalities have strung themselves together and invited one and all to follow their Holiday Trail of Lights to Natchitoches, Shreveport, Minden, Monroe and Alexandria. The special events, exhibits, performances and parades practically pop the seams of holidaytrailoflights.com, which also lists the five individual city Web sites for more details.
Christmas begins at the Natchitoches Christmas Festival – and has since 1926. Festival day is always the first Saturday of December – with two parades, a crafts show, a fireworks extravaganza and the lighting of the city – but it’s spun off so many other events that it can now boast “45 Nights of Lights” that begin in mid-November and stretch to Epiphany. So the festival day is Dec. 1 this year, but the opening day of the season is Nov. 17 (named an “official salute” to our statehood bicentennial), with concessions, music by the great Tab Benoit and a fireworks spectacular.
The following weeks offer more fireworks, crafts and late-night store hours, and December brings live music at the riverside stage plus carriage rides and caroling on Front Street. Santa will receive little visitors at his riverfront headquarters, and on Nov. 23-24, Dec. 14-16 and Dec. 21-23, kids can enjoy a snow fest complete with blizzard machines and an “avalanche” slide.
The local preservation society plans six evenings of home tours (historicfoundation.org), and on Dec. 8 costumed French troops and merchants will celebrate an 18th-century Winter Festival in the awesome replica of Fort St. Jean Baptiste. Downriver, famous Melrose Plantation will be decorated as in colonial times, and on Dec. 15 the St. Augustine Historical Society’s Cane River Creole Christmas will feature tours and Christmas storytelling at the ancient Badin-Roque House.
Finally, and I cannot overstate this, after every event you must head for the riverside food booths for the can’t-explain-it-but-they’re-the-best Natchitoches meat pies of the year.
The fun in these Red River cities begins Nov. 15 with the tree-lighting ceremony at the Louisiana Boardwalk shopping district on the river, with its streetcars, carousel and restaurants, and Christmas in Roseland, the lighting of the gardens of the American Rose Society, is open weekends in November and December. You’ll find singing groups, train rides and art exhibits, but the highlight is the acreage itself and 1 million colorful lights (trust me, or count ‘em yourself).
On Dec. 1, up on Caddo Lake, the Christmas on Caddo festival offers concessions, entertainment and fireworks, and the Country Christmas Festival in nearby Vivian brings a parade and day of festivities. The Dec. 8 Christmas on the Square in the Bossier Parish seat of Benton features a parade, food, music and a cool children’s play area.
Back in town, special performances include a Nov. 17 jazz and blues fest in Shreveport’s historic Highland neighborhood, free Christmas concerts at Bossier’s Civic Center Nov. 28-29, the Metropolitan Ballet’s Dec. 1-2 Nutcracker at Riverview Theatre and the Festival of Lessons and Carols at splendid St. Mark’s Cathedral on Dec. 6. Other holiday events take place at the exhibit/stage/film spots of Shreveport’s downtown arts district, including Artspace (art-directed by Academy Award winner Bill Joyce of Moonbot Studios) with its stages, galleries and great café, and the beloved Robinson Film Center (independent and classic movies). Coming soon: The 1923 Calanthean Temple, built by black civic leader Cora Murdock Allen and once a venue for Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway and Jelly Roll Morton, is in the midst of a thorough restoration.
On Dec. 1 the ever-expanding Norton Art Gallery presents Joy Stories, inspirational tales of the season, along with free tours of its Christmas- and winter-themed artworks. Treasures await in that venerable old gallery’s gift shop, and two other special shopping opportunities are the Opera Guild’s Nov. 15-17 Les Boutiques de Noel and the Nov. 23-25 Mistletoe and More show, both at the Bossier Civic Center.
Rather than beginning on Epiphany as our Carnival does, Germany’s Fasching Karneval begins in November, surrounding and including Christmas activities within its own traditions. Thus the old German town of Minden begins its season with a Fasching festival Nov. 10-11, with ice-skating, festive foods and a visit from Santa. You can browse art and antiques galleries as well as the Fasching Boutique, shop crafts booths along Main Street, enjoy a German beer exhibition, see a display of 100 traditional German nutcrackers, dine on German and Southern fare and dance to German and local bands.
While waiting for Saturday’s fireworks, learn some local history via murals and artifacts at the Dorcheat Museum (its log cabin will be adorned with pioneer-era decorations), get the history firsthand (and “spirited”) from former residents at the Cemetery Ghost Walk or ride a free shuttle to the Old Germantown Colony (a communal settlement founded in 1835).
Other prime days for visiting will be Nov. 24 for nearby Springhill’s 2 p.m. Christmas Parade; Dec. 1 for Sarepta’s Christmas Festival (crafts, concessions, live music and a lawn-decoration competition); Dec. 4 for Minden’s good old-fashioned Christmas Parade; and Dec. 8 for the Christmas tour of Minden’s antebellum, Victorian and early 1900s homes.
The first Christmas event in these Ouachita River towns belongs to the children, who gather on Friday, Nov. 23, at the always-amazing Northeast Louisiana Children’s Museum for synthetic ice-skating, snow walks and ornament-making. They can mail their wish lists at the Peppermint Post Office and hear stories told by Mrs. Claus, and the fun continues daily through Dec. 23.
Nov. 24 brings the Little Miss Christmas on the River Pageant at West Monroe’s holly-decked Antique Alley, and then you can shop till 5 p.m. when the Lighting Ceremony illuminates both cities and sets the vintage streetlights of Trenton Street flashing to the beat of “Jingle Bells” and “Deck the Halls.”
The wildest Christmas parade of the state erupts from West Monroe’s “redneck-and-proud” Bawcomville district on Dec. 1, exposing the entire city to this procession of tractors, go-carts, horses, goats, camo bass boats (from the Bawcomville Yacht Club) and beer-can Christmas trees. Kiddie attractions will be strung out along Antique Alley, which will also host a Bah Humbug 5K Run and an antique car show. The official Christmas Parade zigzags through both cities at 3 p.m., and the Fireworks Extravaganza follows at 7 p.m.
White lights at University of Louisiana–Monroe will adorn the library’s bell tower and cypress trees along Bayou DeSiard, and be aware that the Biedenharn Museum (built by the first bottler of Coca-Cola and now a showplace of arts and antiquities) has once again transformed its galleries and gardens into a wonderland of Christmas Around the World decorations (open through the whole month of December).
More than a Christmas shopping spree for art-lovers, Monroe’s Dec. 6 Downtown Gallery Crawl is also a night of food, music and sightseeing in the historic commercial district. Antique Alley’s chili cook-off and Christmas Pet Paw-rade are Dec. 8, and come back Dec. 15 for special bargains at the antiques shops assisted by shopkeepers dressed in vintage holiday attire.
The Junior League’s metro-wide shopping extravaganza called Very Merry Market (jlalex.com/content/very-merry-market) kicks off the activities of Rapides Parish Oct. 25-27, and the annual firing-up of the four-kettle sugar mill at colonial Kent House is Nov. 10. Called the Sugar Day Festival, it’s also a day of nonstop blacksmithing and soap-making, Indian dances and basket-weaving, jacks and marble contests and “old-timey music.”
The Alexandria Zoo offers Holiday Safaris from 5 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. weekends beginning Nov. 23 – a rare chance to observe the nocturnal moods and modes of animals whose enclosures lie along the Christmas-lighted footpaths. The Coughlin-Sanders Performing Arts Center stages The Nutcracker on Nov. 24-25, and Dec. 8 brings Lagniappe Theatre Co.’s Christmas Spectacular (a lively variety show inspired by New York’s Radio City Christmas Spectacular).
Alexandria’s Holiday Magic lighting ceremony, at 5 p.m. on Nov. 29, begins a series of events dubbed the 12 Nights of Christmas, which include the Nov. 30 Follow the Star and Christmas on the Hill presentations at Louisiana College; Kent House’s Dec. 1 Old-Fashioned Christmas (carols, ornament-making and visits with Papa Noel); the Dec. 7-9 Holiday in the Heart weekend (highlighted by Pineville’s big parade at 7 p.m. Friday and Alexandria’s at 2 p.m. Sunday); and eight more nights of storytelling, concerts and a live Nativity scene.