As the popular song goes, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” and few would argue.
Certainly few along the Gulf Coast would raise any negative voice to that sentiment. Besides, Santa is especially keen on keeping good records this time of year and there are certain lists he keeps that we don’t want to find our names on.
The Gulf Coast celebration of this especially festive time takes back seat to no section of the country in our fervor and our devotion to the holiday season. Everywhere you gaze, lights are aglow, festive activities are unfolding practically every moment, public streets are joyously decorated and store windows beckon to enter and partake in the spirit of the season.
While our part of the country cannot claim to have initiated the North American observance of Christmas, it took us no time to mark our own culture on the proceedings. Our entire area was populated by European empires who had their collective eyes on what they believed was the great prize of location, agricultural riches, transportation, even the storied Fountain of Youth.
Along the way, our forebears from Spain and France brought their traditions and religious beliefs to this New World, establishing forever our devout acknowledgement of Christmas, as well as celebrating the frivolous nature of the season.
The Europeans who populated the East Coast of America were reserved and more proper in their religious ceremonies than the more liberal cultures that inhabited this coast. It also was important to include the Native Americans who inhabited this land before the Europeans because the original inhabitants knew where clear rivers flowed and what crops could survive in the rich soils. We were dependant on their knowledge and on their peaceful intentions.
For the most part, but not always, the Spanish and the French were interested in co-existence with the Indians, assuming the Indians embraced the religion of the Europeans, or at least tolerated its presence on what were formerly their lands.
The main point is that the religion of the Europeans was strong, and they adhered to Christian traditions even under the most trying conditions of settling the Gulf Coast.
So, around here, Christmas is not just the modern, commercial season seen in so many other places, but rather a continuum of traditions that are still very close to our lifestyle, our heritage, and our beliefs. We like the trappings but we have learned from our ancestors what the season really means.
The Ghosts of Christmases Past are never very far from us, just like we honor our forebears and their accomplishments at other times of the year.
Let’s take a look around the Gulf Coast and see how we and our neighbors celebrate this special season.
Louisiana, North and South
Natchitoches, a charming Old South-style community in the northwest part of the state, lights up the river, literally. The entire banks of the Cane River are aglow with a magnificent light display, fireworks, laser show, arts and crafts demonstrations and sales, and a glorious path through it all. More than 300,000 lights and top-name musical entertainment are magnets, drawing visitors from all over the nation.
Moving south, Lafayette, the heart of Cajun Country, welcomes the season in its own way, blending French traditions with American styles. Papa Noel is the celebrity-of-the-moment, and every radio station features the now-classic production of “A Cajun Night Before Christmas,” in both English and French.
The city that knows how to stage a festival is not about to let Christmas pass without the full treatment. City Park dresses up its ancient oaks in full holiday regalia, with massive ornaments hanging among the moss, punctuated by lights and displays.
Jackson Square, the heart of the Crescent City, is adorned with Christmas finery, and on the Sunday before Christmas, directly before the stately St. Louis Cathedral, the Cathedral Choir leads the community in song, both religious and seasonal. Everyone receives song sheets and a candle for the evening sing-along. If you don’t feel like Christmas, standing in one of America’s great squares, gazing at the Cathedral, holding a candle and singing with friends, then the season is never going to move you to participate.
Along the Mississippi River, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, massive wooden structures are constructed, some in the shape of riverboats or plantation homes, others in pyramidal configuration, and these are lit ablaze on Christmas Eve.
Literally lining the levees of the great river for miles, the fires attract tens of thousands of viewers, in cars, on riverboats or just walking along. European tradition holds that bonfires on Christmas Eve dates back to the Celts and then with the growth of Christianity took on more religious tones. Today the Bonfires Along the Levees are staged by families who honor their ancestors in this way and pass along to next generations the knowledge and the respect of what has been done before.
The holiday season takes on an historic and maritime flavor along the Mississippi Gulf Coast. At Beauvoir, the last home of Jefferson Davis, the Christmas of 1889 is celebrated. Decorations, caroling and lights twinkling in the old oak trees are all part of the spirit of the community.
There is an annual Christmas Boat Parade on the water in Biloxi, preceded by a children’s walking parade, and capped by a massive fireworks show over the water near the Lighthouse.
The stately and elegant grounds of Bellingrath Gardens are transformed to a Christmas wonderland, with more than 3 million holiday lights, trees, wreaths, and more than 950 displays to enchant the child in all of us.
The 10,500 square-foot Bellingrath Home is integral to the revelry, with decorations dating back to its original construction in 1935. Choral concerts are staged amid this festive setting.
The city of Mobile is not to be left out and there is an impressive Christmas parade through its streets, as well as seasonal lighting and events throughout the town.
Pensacola, the "City of Five Flags," can boast one of the biggest holiday celebrations along the Gulf Coast. The entire area from Seville Square to the Palofax Business District are part of the many live performances, tours, fireworks shows and light displays, all beginning in front of the Escambia County Courthouse. A Christmas Parade and performances of "The Nutcracker” round out the celebration of Christmas honoring many cultures.
While the Gulf Coast usually provides a wealth of experiences year-round, at Christmas season communities change their tempo. It’s a nod to the traditions of long-ago, from the European continent that gave us a unique culture and a love of life.
Photos (from top to bottom): Natchitoches Annual Festival of Lights, Courtesy of Natchitoches Annual Festival of Lights, 2011; Pensacola WinterFest, Courtesy of PensacolaLights.com, Dennis K. Johnson, 2004; Caroling in the Square a 64-year tradition, JacksonSquare.com, 2009; On-the-water boat parade and fireworks in Biloxi, WLOX.com, 2011; Bellingrath Gardens in Mobile, visitsouth.com, 2009