Natchitoches: Christmas at Its Best

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The holiday season comes to life in Natchitoches during the annual Festival of Lights.  The City of Natchitoches has a deep-rooted history of providing one of the South’s premiere holiday celebrations for families to enjoy. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the United States and foreign countries travel to the “City of Lights” to take part in a beloved tradition that is 85 years in the making.

Throughout its history, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival has been recognized as one of the country’s premiere holiday celebrations. Most recently, the American Bus Association (ABA) announced the 2011 Natchitoches Christmas Festival of Lights has been designated as one of the Top 100 Events in North America.

The Natchitoches Christmas Festival got its start in 1926 when City of Natchitoches Superintendent of Utilities Max Burgdorf decided there was a need in the community for something to better express the Christmas feeling. He discovered a 10-watt Christmas tree bulb that had just been placed on the market and obtained enough of these bulbs to get a lighting program underway.

Natchitoches residents fell in love with the idea of having Christmas lights strung in the community; year after year, the City added streamers of Christmas lights across the streets in the Natchitoches Historic District, eventually creating Christmas light “set pieces” along the banks of Cane River Lake.  Today, more than 80 set pieces can be found along the downtown portion of Cane River Lake, all custom designed and built by City Utility workers. Many of the set pieces depict a piece of Natchitoches history and tradition including pieces that pay tribute to Northwestern State University, the movie “Steel Magnolias” and zinnias, a flower made famous in paintings by renowned folk artist Clementine Hunter.

Since its origins in 1926, the festival has expanded to a six-week celebration, now incorporating weekly fireworks shows, live music, food and so much more. The 2011 Natchitoches Festival of Lights officially began on November 19th, and continues every night through the first week of January.  You can see the Christmas lights for yourself during “45 Nights of Christmas Lights” in Natchitoches. Nearly one million Christmas lights illuminate downtown Natchitoches nightly during this season.

The highlight of this year’s Festival of Lights is the 85th Annual Natchitoches Christmas Festival, scheduled for Friday, December 2nd and Saturday, December 3rd. Reigning over this year’s Christmas Festival celebration is Miss Merry Christmas Brooke Evans and the Christmas Belles. This year’s Christmas Belles are Katherine Burke, Gabrielle Gallien, Roxy Ramirez, Brooklynn Sanders and Hannah Ward.

Friday night’s activities include live music on the downtown riverbank that evening and a performance of the annual Christmas Gala, hosted by Northwestern State University’s School of Creative and Performing Arts (visit the University’s web site at www.nsula.edu for more information on Gala performances).

Saturday’s activities begin with the annual Santa Shuffle on the downtown riverbank followed by opening ceremonies at 10:00am and the Junior Parade at 11:00am, designed for younger children and families. The festival’s main parade takes place at 2:00pm featuring more than 80 entries and regional bands. Retired Lt. General Russel L. Honore’ of the United States Army will reign over this year’s parade as Grand Marshal. Lt. General Honore’ led the Department of Defense response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. He has served in a variety of command and staff positions which focused on Defense support to Civil Authorities and Homeland Defense.

The City of Natchitoches is proud to announce a special guest at this year’s Christmas Festival. Troy and Jacob Landry, two of the stars of the reality television show “Swamp People,” will appear at the Christmas Festival for a “meet and greet.” The Landrys will be at the Natchitoches Events Center from 10:00am to 2:00pm to meet visitors, take photographs and sign autographs. The Events Center is located at 750 Second Street in the heart of the Historic District. Admission to meet the Landrys will be $10.00 for adults and $5.00 for children 10 and under. Admission includes a complimentary 4×6 photograph and postcard size of a Natchitoches Christmas Festival Poster. For more information about the meet and greet, call the City’s Office of Programming and Promotions at (318) 357-3822 or (318) 352-2746.

Entertainment at the 85th Annual Natchitoches Christmas Festival includes a number of various bands Friday evening and all day Saturday. Musical groups include The LaCour Trio, Mustang Sally and Greenlight Caravan.

If you are not able to attend the 85th Annual Natchitoches Christmas Festival, there are still plenty of opportunities to experience the holiday season in Natchitoches. Each weekend in December in Natchitoches has become its own festival of sorts including live entertainment on the downtown stage and spectacular fireworks shows over Cane River Lake. While these weekends are crowd favorites, there is something for the entire family to enjoy no matter what night of the week you choose to visit Natchitoches during the holiday season.

While strolling throughout the Historic District to view the lights, be sure to take advantage of the many activities offered in the downtown area. Listen to carolers sing Christmas tunes along Front Street, walk through a cloud of “snow” blowing across the roadway and take in the sights and sounds of downtown during Christmas. There are scheduled holiday home tours (available at various homes on specific evenings during the holiday season), horse and carriage tours of downtown and of course, dozens of unique retail stores and restaurants. When it comes to downtown shopping and dining, there is plenty to choose from – gifts, souvenir items, décor, clothing, handmade arts and crafts and delectable cuisine including Creole, Cajun, home cooking and even sushi.
Fireworks and live entertainment will take place on the downtown riverbank on Saturday, December 10th, a “Cajun Weekend” and Saturday, December 17th, a “Rocking Christmas” weekend. Fireworks shows on both Saturdays are at 7:00pm. A fireworks display will also take place on New Year’s Eve at midnight.

Children looking to see Santa to share their Christmas wish list are in luck! Santa can be found every night in the Santa House on the southern end of the downtown riverbank beginning on Saturday, December 4th. Santa Claus is in his house every night from December 4th to December 23rd from 6:00pm to 8:30pm. Miss Merry Christmas and the Christmas Belles will be on hand to greet children and help them take a photo with Santa Claus.

Many of the historic sites around the Natchitoches Parish area also participate in holiday celebrations throughout December. Sites such as Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, Melrose Plantation and the Cane River Creole National Historical Park all host events centered around the Christmas season. Specific events and contact information for each event can be found online at www.christmasfestival.com.

Those wanting a keepsake item from the Natchitoches Christmas Festival might consider purchasing this year’s Natchitoches Christmas Festival Poster, painted by central Louisiana resident Donna Barron. This year’s poster is on sale for $35.00 each and can be purchased in various stores along Front Street or through the City of Natchitoches’ Office of Community Development. For more information, please call (318) 357-3838 or visit www.natchitochesla.gov.

Whether you are looking for fun and excitement this holiday season or want to slow down a bit and take time to spend with family and friends, Natchitoches’ Festival of Lights celebration has something for everyone.

For more information on the Festival of Lights including a schedule of events, a listing of overnight accommodations and information on parking, fees and other logistical information, please visit www.christmasfestival.com or call the Natchitoches Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 259-1714. Be sure to “like” Natchitoches on Facebook for the latest updates about the Natchitoches Christmas Festival.