Cane River Christmas
Published Nov/Dec 2004

A child on Christmas morning stands in front of a pile of presents, wondering where to start. It’s sensory overload. First-time visitors to the north central Louisiana town of Natchitoches for its annual Festival of Lights may experience the same feeling.

Fireworks, music, food, Santa Claus, house tours and miles of lights–how can anyone possibly take it all in. With simple planning, anyone can fully enjoy this holiday spectacle, one of the South’s great traditions.

This year’s event

From Nov. 20–Jan. 6, Natchitoches’ 33-block historic district comes to life for the festival. Cane River Lake literally reflects the holiday spirit with 77 Christmas sets containing more than 300,000 lights. The winter night sky is lit up with fireworks offered every Saturday night in December and at midnight on New Year’s Eve. Last year, lasers and a huge sound system enhanced the show.

Performances, home tours and a variety of events run throughout the more than seven-week period. Check the schedule at the festival’s Web site, www.christmasfestival.com. The big event, however, is the 78th annual Christmas Festival, which will be Dec. 4 this year.
Festival day includes a parade with 20 marching bands from Louisiana high schools and universities. There are usually at least 100 entries in the parade.

Certainly every festival needs a reigning queen and this one has Miss Merry Christmas and her Christmas Belles. Miss City of Lights, the Christmas Angels and Miss Natchitoches Teen also participate with other festival royalty. Many of the costumes are in the same traditional style of the original 1926 festival.

Entertainment on Dec. 4 features four headliners: Al “Lil Fats” Jackson, The Drifters, The Marvelettes and Barry Badon and the Bayou Boys. Seasonal music, Cajun, Zydeco and rock ’n’ roll will round out the concert offerings every Saturday on the riverfront stage.

Fill up your plate

A variety of restaurants and food booths will dot the historic area, but don’t miss sampling the Natchitoches meat pie, a Creole creation unique to the area. The landmark Lasyone’s Restaurant is a great stop to sample this concoction. The special spices are a trade secret that James Lasyone and his daughter, Angela, won’t reveal.

Mama’s Oyster House is a fun place, while the adjoining Papa’s Bar and Grill offers a different menu. Merci Beaucoup is a delightful stop for lunch. The Pioneer Pub has good food and live entertainment.

Other interesting tidbits offered by the festival food vendors include fried alligator. And to take the chill off while strolling outside, sip a cup of Nakatosh coffee, another area specialty.

Make yourself comfortable

With 40 inns, Natchitoches calls itself the bed-and-breakfast capital of north Louisiana. Many of these homes will be on the candlelight holiday tours.

The exterior architecture and interior décor are as different as are the innkeepers. Staying at one of these inns gives the guest insight to the area and its friendly people. Make your reservations as early as possible if you want to visit for the festival.

The Judge Porter house drips in Victorian opulence, while Chez des Amis focuses on a tropical or Florida style and is more in an Arts and Crafts tradition. The owners decorate their homes in holiday dress and provide great advice on local points of interest. Chez des Amis owner Jim Metcalf whips up special breakfasts and great mimosas, a signature of his bed-and-breakfast home.

Seeing other sights

In December, the City of Lights tour takes guests to see the holiday lighting displays along Cane River Lake and the neighborhoods to the east of the historic district. They are conducted each night beginning at dark.

Another recommendation is a 45-minute trolley tour of the area’s historic sites. Some of the stops will look familiar to fans of the movie “Steel Magnolias.” The movie’s wedding scene was filmed at St. Augustine Church and the funeral setting was the American Cemetery.

Just outside town and close to St. Augustine Church are several plantations, two of which–Oakland and Magnolia–are included in the Cane River Creole National Historic Park.

Melrose, a plantation established in 1796 by descendants of a former slave, is open for tours. A guide takes visitors through the house and describes living in the past. The works of Clementine Hunter, the premier Southern primitive artist who spent much of her life at Melrose, are on display here.

Other sites to see include the Kate Chopin House, Badin-Roque House, Fort St. Jean Baptiste, Alligator Park and Show, and the Old Courthouse State Museum.

If a visit to Natchitoches didn’t satisfy your quest for Christmas lighting displays, consider the Holiday Trail of Lights. Six cities–Natchitoches, Shreveport and Bossier City in Louisiana plus Marshall, Kilgore and Jefferson in Texas–will light the way for you.

If you wonder what Natchitoches does with the lights after the festival, the answer is they recycle them. Utility department employees drill a hole in the base so that a string can pass through. The lights are decorated as a commemoration of a visit to Natchitoches.

Since 1714, Natchitoches has been a destination of travelers. One visit will show you why they keep coming, whether to see the Festival of Lights or to relax on a bench and watch the river drift past.

Theresa Russell is a contributor from Round Lake, N.Y.

Top: The lights are the main event at the Festival of Lights in Natchitoches. Louisiana Office of Tourism photos

Below: Visitors to Natchitoches must try the signature meat pie, whether it be at the festival or at Lasyone’s Restaurant.

Before You Go

Admission to the 78th annual Christmas Festival is $5 for guests 12 and older. For more information, contact the Natchitoches Parish Tourist Commission at 1-800-259-1714 or www.historicnatchitoches.com.

Stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guides. View a list of offices.

Order free information through the Reader Service Card online. Click on Reader Resources.


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