Natchitoches, the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, established in 1714, shares its rich history and tradition with hundreds of thousands of tourists each year. Visitors can tour historic sites from the 18th century, break for our famous Natchitoches Meat Pies and celebrate the season with the national ranked Christmas festival every December. For six weeks during the holiday season, thousands travel to our great city to make Christmas memories by viewing more than 300,000 Christmas lights, Christmas set pieces along Cane River Lake, two parades, entertainment and a dazzling firework show.
The Christmas Festival we know and love today had very humble beginnings. In 1920, Max Burgdof came to Natchitoches to install electricity generators purchased by the Power & Light Department. He did such a good job that Mayor T.E. Poleman persuaded him to stay on as chief electrician for the City of Natchitoches. In 1926, Max, who’d found a home in Natchitoches, thought that stringing Christmas lights along Front Street would be a nice Christmas present from the Power & Light Department to the citizens of his adopted town. He and Councilman Alf Ortmeyer approached local businesses with the idea, and Foster & Glassell, Avoyelles Wholesale, and W.F. Taylor each put up $25.00, while other businesses put up lesser amounts. A small 10 watt light bulb had just become available, and Mr. Burgdof used the money to acquire a small supply of them.
To complement the lights, Burgdof built the first set piece—an 8-foot-tall Christmas star. After launching the lights, Burgdof would go on to become a local ice manufacturing baron, and Charles Solomon, his successor as chief electrician, took over and continued the Christmas tradition. Today, he is probably the individual most identified with the lights. Mr. Solomon and Charles Maggio, with the help of their friends and co-workers, built over 40 set pieces from either their own or submitted designs by community members.
The Festival of Lights actually began when people in Natchitoches and the surrounding communities began to gather downtown on the first night the lights were turned on. This lighting became a community event, albeit an informal one. The event quickly evolved into a festival, the Festival of Lights, which was a big hit. People from all over the region started coming to Natchitoches on the first Saturday in December to celebrate the annual Natchitoches Christmas Festival.
It was in the late 1930’s that the Festival first featured fireworks. In 1936, a couple of local businessmen, Allen T. Cox and Sam E. West, were discussing over coffee one morning, how the Festival could be jazzed up. They hit on the idea of fireworks. The two men enlisted the help of master Festival fundraiser Alf Ortmeyer, who raised $300.00 from local businessmen. Two of those businessmen, John Hamilton Cunningham and A.C. Massingill, took the money down to New Orleans to buy the rockets. They fired them off for about five years. The firework displays have now been expanded to every Saturday in December, ending on New Year’s Eve.
Along with the lights and the firework show, one of the biggest crowd pleasers is a Christmas parade. The “adult” parade, held in the early afternoon, came about as a way to attract people to town earlier in the day so that the merchants could benefit from their patronage. Northwestern State often had a football game in the early afternoon, which gave people something to do until dark, but it took them away from the downtown merchants. For several years, festival-goers would have to choose between the game and the parade. Gradually, the parade won. The parades accomplished their purpose and people began to gather for the Festival early in the day.
The first Christmas Festival Parade is believed to have taken place in the 1940’s. Today, the parade features approximately two dozen marching bands from high schools and universities all across Louisiana and some neighboring states. It holds nearly 100 entries each year with an estimated 5,000 participants. The parade typically lasts anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes as it travels throughout the landmark historic district.
The children’s parade made its debut in 1971, and it continues to roll through the historic landmark district on Christmas Festival day. This year’s “Ms. Santa Claus” children’s parade will begin at 11:00am in downtown Natchitoches. The large parade begins at 1:00pm.
Among the parade participants are Miss Merry Christmas and the Christmas Belles. Each year, a group of young ladies from Natchitoches Parish are selected to be the official ambassadors for the Natchitoches Christmas Festival. They travel the state promoting the Christmas festivities in Natchitoches.
Like most festivals, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival offers its fair share of food items, ranging from funnel cakes to cotton candy. However, the Natchitoches Christmas Celebration includes one very special food item known throughout the country—the Natchitoches Meat Pie. Meat pies received national recognition when Natchitoches resident James Lasyone opened Lasyone’s Meat Pie Kitchen in 1967. Natchitoches meat pies are half-moon shaped pastries that are hand crimped and filled with seasoned beef and pork before being fried to perfection. The Natchitoches meat pie is the favorite among festival-goers.
Santa Claus has become a great friend to historic Natchitoches. The City of Natchitoches is home to a full-time Santa Claus house, which allows children to visit him every night during the Christmas season. The original Santa Claus House was built in 1965 on the riverbank of Cane River Lake in downtown Natchitoches. Each December, Miss Merry Christmas and the Christmas Belles work with Santa Claus to gather the Christmas wish list from every boy and girl. Santa Claus lane leading to the main entrance of the house is decorated with twinkling lights as snow blows through the air to create a Christmas wonderland for visitors. Visiting Santa, Miss Merry Christmas and the Christmas Belles has become a long-standing tradition for boys and girls who visit historic Natchitoches. The Santa Claus House is open nightly from 6:00pm to 8:30pm during the month of December.
Another magical event that brings in thousands of visitors to Natchitoches is the annual Christmas Gala, a musical presented by the Northwestern State University School of Creative and Performing Arts. More than 250 students and faculty members participate in the annual event. Due to the growing popularity of the show, the musical is performed three nights leading up to the first Saturday in December. This year’s Christmas Gala will be held December 4th, 5th and 6th at 7:00pm, with an additional performance at 9:00pm on the 6th at A.A. Fredericks Auditorium on Northwestern State’s Campus. The Creative and Performing Arts department has provided some form of entertainment the evening before the festival for over 40 years.
More Christmas Fun
Join us for Snow Fest on November 30th, December 13th, 14th, 20th and 21st. Bring the kids to the downtown riverbank to see Frosty’s Avalanche slide. Kids and adults can tube down 110 feet of totally awesome winter fun.
On Saturday, December 7th Louisiana’s premiere holiday event kicks off a daylong celebration during the 87th annual Natchitoches Christmas Festival. The annual Natchitoches “City of Lights” 5K run and 1-mile walk will begin at 7:45am, followed by a Christmas event, St. Denis Clause, at Fort St. Jean Baptiste Historic Site from 10:00am to 4:00pm. The Children’s Christmas Parade will begin at 11:00am, and the main parade will roll at 1:00pm. Enjoy live entertainment all day and a breath-taking firework show at 6:00pm over Cane River Lake.
Holiday Tour of Homes
Experience the charm of Louisiana’s original French colony during the annual Holiday Tour of Homes from December 11th through 21st in Natchitoches. The tour, presented by the Natchitoches Historic Foundation, showcases historic homes; some of which are not normally open to the public.
In January 2014, Natchitoches will turn 300 years old! As the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, Natchitoches is the first city in the state of Louisiana to commemorate its Tri-Centennial anniversary. Join us for a special kick-off ceremony during our “Turn on the Holidays” Christmas event on Saturday, November 23rd. The day will be full of activities for the children, live entertainment by “Windstorm”, downtown shops will be open late and the evening will conclude with a spectacular firework show at 7:00pm. Our Tri-Centennial celebration will continue in 2014 with special commemorative events scheduled on the second Saturday of each month.
The 87th annual Christmas Festival is organized by volunteers and members of the Historic District Business Association. The “Festival of Lights”, a 45-night-long event, is organized by the City of Natchitoches, Natchitoches Utility Department, Natchitoches Main Street, Natchitoches Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, Historic District Business Association and hundreds of volunteers. Join us nightly for the “Festival of Lights” from November 23rd through January 6th in historic Natchitoches. Some great downtown attractions include carriage tours through the historic district, shopping, dining and activities for the children. Visit www.Natchitoches Christmas.com or call (800) 259-1714 for a complete up to date list of events.
It’s truly a magical time for the city of Natchitoches, and we are excited to invite you to come “glow” with us. Together we are making Christmas memories for our family and yours!