Creole Christmas in Natchitoches

Known as the setting for Steel Magnolias, this charming Louisiana town boasts one of the biggest celebrations in the country.

Cassandra M. Vanhooser
Creole Christmas
Fireworks explode over the Church Street Bridge every Saturday night in December.
John O'Hagan

Miss Merry Christmas and her court of Belles arrive for a television interview in a flurry of velvet, fur, and tall white go-go boots. Heads turn as they stride down the streets of Natchitoches.

"I think it's the small-town charm," says one Belle, attempting to explain how a city with about 18,000 residents puts on a holiday celebration that lasts more than a month and attracts thousands of people each year.

"Natchitoches is enchanting," says another. "We have all this wonderful history, but it's such a pretty town too."

Whatever the reasons, one thing is perfectly clear. No one celebrates Christmas like Natchitoches.

City of Lights
The annual Festival of Lights (now in its 78th year) begins the weekend before Thanksgiving and stretches through the first week of the New Year. For those 40 days, the streets glow with more than 300,000 lights.

In June, the City of Natchitoches Power and Light Department begins replacing bulbs and repairing the large set pieces that will grace the east bank of Cane River Lake. As soon as the October Tour of Homes wraps up, they begin hanging the decorations.

"We've really got our hands full," says electrical superintendent Charles Brossette, who oversees the massive light display. "A big portion of our year is spent on Christmas."

All this leads up to the Christmas Festival held the first Saturday in December. More than 100,000 people travel to northwest Louisiana for festivities that include a Friday night boat parade, a street festival, the Saturday Christmas Festival Parade, a fireworks spectacular, and the lighting of the city.

A wealth of events takes place throughout the month, but nothing compares with opening day. It's a homecoming for those who once lived here, a chance to entertain for those who still do, and a huge party for the many visitors who come to revel in the spirit of the season.

"When we started this festival, there was not a Christmas light in the entire state of Louisiana," says native Betty Jones, who boasts that she's exactly the same age as the festival. "Now they've got Christmas lights from one end of the state to the other, but I like to think that we were the trailblazers."