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."
But then trailblazers have always been drawn to Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-a-tish). Founded by the French in 1714, it's the oldest settlement in the Louisiana Purchase. Today, the city, located 70 miles south of Shreveport, retains much of its Creole character.
Residents jealously guard the buildings that make up the 33-block National Historic Landmark District. Many of those along Front Street feature galleries encased with exquisite cast-iron grillwork, a look reminiscent of the French Quarter. The ground floors house shops, with offices and townhomes on the upper levels. Old bricks, handmade with local clay, pave the street. It's said that early preservationists lay in the street to protect these same bricks from city officials intent on covering them with asphalt.
"We're just a little bit proud of our city," says Mayor Wayne McCullen with a wide smile. "This town is a melting pot of Louisiana citizens."
Meat Pies and Marching Bands
Festival Saturday dawns bright and clear, ushering in a crisp, sunny day. Visitors begin pouring into town to stake out a slab of concrete along the parade route or a strip of green at the edge of the lake.
At Lasyone's Meat Pie Restaurant, people have been lined up out the door since breakfast. From Thanksgiving through this first week of December, they'll sell some 16,000 fried meat pies.
"People come to get the meat pies," says Angela Lasyone. "We serve them breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We try to keep a friendly atmosphere. It's really homey. Nothing fancy, but people love our pies."
The parade is a long, winding affair. Cavalcades of police motorcycles shriek their sirens. Shriners ride in circles. Tiny tots dressed as angels adorn the big floats. Marching bands bang out Christmas songs.
"Christmas is a special time everywhere, but it is really an exciting time in Natchitoches," says Northwestern State University president Dr. Randall Webb, as he watches the school's band entertain the crowd. "I've never lived anywhere that celebrates Christmas the way we celebrate it here."
Let There Be Light
By the time the lighting ceremony rolls around, the Belles have peeled off their boots and sit huddled together under a patchwork quilt on the banks of the Cane River Lake. They'll be ambassadors for the city of Natchitoches through the rest of the holiday season, making public appearances and posing for pictures at the Riverbank Santa House.
"Miss Merry Christmas is a big part of the community," says Jennifer Salim, the 2003 pageant winner. "For little kids, she is Christmas. We've all grown up wanting to do this. When I won, somebody told me, 'Once a queen, always a queen.' In a way that's awesome; it's a really high expectation too. I guess I'll always be Miss Merry Christmas."
This article is from the December 2004 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.