A quintessentially Louisiana tradition, many river communities, including Gramercy where this photo was taken, hold levee bonfire celebrations around Christmas.
Four suggestions for brightening the holiday season
As winter’s long nights impinge ever more upon our daylight hours, it’s time to flip the switch on the season of lights. Reflected in the soft-lit glow of candles and whimsical constructions shaped in holiday lights, towns across Louisiana sparkle with the fire and color of the holiday season. Here’s a sampling of festively illuminated offerings around the state. Pick one or try them all to make this a December to remember.
Natchitoches Festival of Lights
For a city celebrating its three hundredth birthday next year, it’s only fitting that Natchitoches should string up more than 300,000 lights throughout its historic downtown district for the 87th Annual Festival of Lights. The display dates back to the 1920s, when Natchitoches city’s superintendent of utilities constructed an eight-foot-tall Christmas star out of electric lightbulbs. Today, more than one hundred set pieces, all designed and developed by members of the utility department, accompany the elaborate show of lights.
The town is set aglow November 23 with a small lighting ceremony, then picks up the pace the first Saturday in December with an annual Christmas Festival, that features a parade with two dozen marching bands and more than five thousand participants. The celebration, which draws more than 100,000 festival-goers, also boasts a 5K Run, arts and crafts, live musical entertainment, and an evening firework and laser show.
If you can’t make it for the December 7 Christmas Festival, though, don’t worry. The lights are lit every evening for six weeks, from the Saturday before Thanksgiving until January 6, 2014. Enjoy the display while taking a carriage tour through the historic district of the oldest city in the entire Louisiana Purchase. Then drop by some of the many shops and restaurants that remain open late along the riverfront, making sure to grab one of those famous Natchitoches meat pies.
For the kids, a visit to the Santa Claus House is a must to ensure that Santa knows what’s tops on their Christmas wish lists. Every Saturday night until New Year’s Eve the town features a fireworks show along the banks of Cane River Lake, too.
For more information, including a complete schedule of the season’s events such as Snow Fest, the Christmas Gala, and Holiday Tour of Homes, visit natchitocheschristmas.com.
Fire and Water Rural Arts Celebration
Fire is inextricably linked to the theme and the history of Arnaudville’s annual Le Feu et l’Eau (Fire and Water in this bilingual part of the state) Rural Arts Celebration, which takes place Saturday, December 7 from 11 am to 11 pm. The festival can trace its roots to the period following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when a cadre of creative types, led by artistic pied piper George Marks, conceived the festival as a showcase for visual artists keen to display and sell their work. To mark the event’s location, which was held at NUNU’s Town Market—a combination gallery/music venue/restaurant that served as Arnaudville’s cultural nexus at the intersection of Bayous Teche and Fuselier—Marks and his henchmen conspired to set fire to water, lighting bonfires in boats and setting them afloat along the nearby waterways.
But fire giveth and fire taketh away. In July, 2010, a blaze destroyed NUNU’s building (no connection to the festival), and in the years since the celebration has moved to the old Singleton Lumber building at 1510 Courtableau Road—four blocks from the original site. In its new home the NUNU Arts and Culture Collective has evolved to serve as an incubator for local French/Cajun culture and a beacon that attracts creative endeavor from throughout Acadiana and beyond.
In its new location, Le Feu et l’Eau has expanded its offerings beyond visual arts to include film, culinary arts, literary readings, workshops, and two stages of music. Businesses throughout downtown join in the day’s festivities; and since the area is designated a Louisiana Cultural District, all original art is sold free of sales tax.
Be sure to arrive at dusk when a brass band from Opelousas will lead a parade from the center of town to the NUNU Arts and Culture Collective; in keeping with tradition, ceremonial fires will be set ablaze as a fire dancer performs for the audience.
For more information and a listing of artists who will be part of the event, visit the Le Feu et l’Eau website at fireandwaterfestival.org.
Caroling by Candlelight, Glassblowing, and Christmas New Orleans Style
Those who’d rather hold fire in their hands should join the throngs of candlelit carolers congregating outside St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans’ Jackson Square on Sunday, December 22. A tradition since 1946, the event, which is sponsored by Patio Planters of the Vieux Carré, gathers residents and tourists to light up the darkness with thousands of candles while sharing the songs of the season. The gates to Jackson Square open at 6:30 pm and caroling begins at 7 pm, so arrive on time to pick up your candles and song sheets before adding your voice to the chorus. Better yet, arrive at 5:30 pm and stop by St. Louis Cathedral to enjoy the sounds of Handel’s Dixit Dominus and Vivaldi’s Magnificat performed by the Cathedral Concert Choir, soloists, and orchestra.
For those who like to turn up the heat, follow the gentle flicker of a candle flame with the searing heat of a blowtorch. New Orleans GlassWorks and Printmaking Studio in New Orleans’ Warehouse District offers tours during which visitors can watch master craftsmen blow exquisite pieces of glass. It’s also a great place to pick up some holiday ornaments. Learn more at neworleansglassworks.com.
City Park also lights up the New Orleans night sky—and the park’s one hundred-year-old live oak trees—during its annual Celebration in the Oaks, running through January 4. Across the river, Algiers prepares Santa for his trip down the Mississippi with a bonfire and concert on December 7.
Meanwhile, more than fifty hotels have cut holiday rates up to thirty percent; and some of the city’s best restaurants serve their famous prix fixe Reveillon dinners, a French Creole holiday tradition dating back to the mid-1800s featuring four-course spreads. For information on events, hotel deals, and Reveillon dinners in New Orleans, visit holiday.neworleansonline.com.
Bonfires on the Levee
If you’ve never experienced the Christmas Eve bonfires in St. James Parish, this is one to add to your bucket list. When the sun sets on December 24 more than one hundred pyres will be lining the Mississippi River levee for miles in the towns of Lutcher and Gramercy; when the clock strikes 7 pm, the bonfires will be simultaneously torched, sending flames leaping high into the air.
Early French and German colonists brought the idea of bonfires from Europe, but tales of how the levee tradition evolved range from the idea that the fires guide Papa Noël on his journey through Louisiana, to the possibility that they were used as navigational signals for ships. Regardless of their roots, the massive celebration draws thousands of visitors every year to enjoy the view, for which locals have been preparing since Thanksgiving. It’s an ideal chance to walk the levee, admiring the handiwork of residents and making new friends in the holiday spirit. Parking is available in lots along La. 641; alternately, slowly drive the bumper-to-bumper route along River Road through Gramercy and Lutcher.
In anticipation of the Christmas Eve bonfire spectacular, Lutcher will host the Annual Festival of the Bonfires on December 13—15 at Lutcher Recreational Park on La. 3192. Along with amusement rides, crafts, and food, the weekend schedule is packed with live music, a gumbo cook-off, potato salad throwdown, a 5K run/walk, a car show, and more. Plus, at 7 pm on Friday and Saturday nights, a single bonfire is lit on the levee as a teaser for the Christmas Eve bonanza.
For more information about the Christmas Eve bonfires and the Festival of the Bonfires, visit festivalofthebonfires.org.