Natchitoches, the oldest town in Louisiana, calls itself the “City of Lights.” That description reaches its zenith during the annual Christmas Festival of Lights that starts the Saturday before Thanksgiving and extends to January 6.
What began as a 1-day event is now 6 weeks filled with fun, traditions, and family-friendly celebrations. This year commemorates 95 years of the festival, 85 years of fireworks displays, and 65 years of crowning a Miss Merry Christmas. Visitors may choose to spend a single day in Natchitoches, but most opt for an entire weekend since there is so much to enjoy. Here are some suggestions for soaking up the local culture during the holidays.
Note: My visit to Natchitoches was hosted by Natchitoches CVB. The opinions and observations offered are my own.
1. Ignite Your Christmas Spirit At “Turn On The Holidays”
People in Louisiana love festivals, which probably explains why there are as many as 300 held annually. In Natchitoches, the Saturday before Thanksgiving is a great excuse for heading to Front Street with the family to participate in all the merriment. During the daylight hours, the shops are open, bouncy houses entertain the kids, food trucks serve local specialties, and musicians entertain on the Riverbank Stage.
A few minutes before 7 p.m., the music stops, and the festival organizers introduce the year’s honorees. For the past 65 years, area high school girls have competed for the title of Miss Merry Christmas, plus six are selected as Christmas Belles. One of the duties of Miss Merry Christmas is to flip the switch turning on 300,000 lights adorning the downtown area. The crowd counts down, the lights come on, and at almost the exact moment, a fireworks show commences.
Pro Tip: Fireworks are a part of the season’s festivities the following four Saturday nights and again on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Seating is available in the amphitheater or in the grass for those who have purchased an armband. Others can watch from street level.
2. Secure A Prime Viewing Spot For The Christmas Parade
The official Christmas Festival takes place the first Saturday in December when once again Front Street is blocked off. Just as with “Turn on the Holidays,” there are music and food vendors, but on this day, a parade takes place in the afternoon with floats, bands, and the arrival of Santa Claus.
Pro Tip: Parking is at a premium in the area when the streets are blocked off along the parade route. If you don’t want to walk a considerable distance, reserved parking is available on Touline Street, which is one block from the parade route, Front Street, and the downtown portion of the Riverbank. For more information on parking rates and hours, check the parade’s official website.
3. Buy Christmas Presents In A Downtown Shop
Front Street and its adjacent blocks are filled with interesting stores with alluring merchandise. If you’re looking for a one-of-a-kind gift for a friend or loved one, consider Pied a Terre, Tres Bien Antiques, Georgia’s Gifts Shop, Cane River Kitchenware, Hello Dolly, The Hall Tree, or Louisiana Purchase. The Natchitoches Art Guild & Gallery has lovely works on display, and you are very likely to meet an artist when you visit.
For everything and the kitchen sink, look no further than inside Kaffie-Frederick, Inc. As Louisiana’s oldest general store, it can date its roots back to 1863. The second floor is filled with gift selections and opens a larger portion for Christmas décor items seasonally.
Pro Tip: Be sure to notice the Christmas ornaments painted on dried okra pods created by Kathy Tate Davis.
4. Stay In A Bed & Breakfast Decked Out In Holiday Finery
Natchitoches has the distinction of being Louisiana’s Bed and Breakfast Capital with 30 from which to choose. Most don’t allow children, but a few rent separate cottages on the grounds for couples with children, and Riverbend Bed & Breakfast is ideal for a whole family who wants to enjoy the days together.
Several inns, such as the Violet Hill Bed & Breakfast and the Samuel Guy House Bed & Breakfast, were built in the 1800s. Many are on the Cane River Lake allowing for peaceful, picturesque, outdoor relaxation. The Steel Magnolia House provided the setting for scenes from the popular movie Steel Magnolias based on a true story written by Robert Harling and starring Julia Roberts, Sally Field, Shirley MacLaine, Dolly Parton, and others. Harling’s characters in the movie tell the story of his sister and mother, along with some colorful townspeople in Natchitoches.
The inns, with their amazing breakfasts, are beautiful year-round but especially so during the holidays. Nutcrackers, trees, wreaths, greenery, vintage ornaments, and collections add immensely to the atmosphere.
5. Take A Riverboat Cruise To See The Lighted Displays Along Cane River Lake
The Cane River Queen Paddle Wheeler escorts dozens of visitors on slow, tranquil excursions down the river and back every hour on the hour from noon until 7:00 p.m. This is a perfect way to enjoy 110 lighted set pieces placed along the riverbanks. During the daylight cruises, you can enjoy spotting native birds and lush vegetation, but the set pieces are best viewed after dark. Book early to secure the cruise that most interests you.
Refreshments and a restroom are available onboard, and the captain’s narrative is highly entertaining.
6. Walk With Loved Ones Through The Lighted Displays At Dark Woods Adventure Park
Christmas in the Park is a walk-through event held at Dark Woods Adventure Park that kicks off the weekend after Thanksgiving then begins opening Wednesdays through Saturdays from December 3 to December 25. Approximately 10,000 people enjoyed the park last year, and even more are expected for this season.
In addition to the 250,000 colored lights, Santa and Mrs. Claus are on hand, and kids will love the singing Mistletones. S’mores kits are sold to enjoy around the firepits, and other concessions, such as hot, homemade mini-donuts, signature recipe hot chocolate, and Dole Whip, are available for park guests to purchase.
This is becoming a family tradition. The terrain is a little hilly but not too strenuous. Plenty of photo ops abound. Admission is $6.00 per person during the week and $7.00 on the weekends. Children under 3 are admitted free of charge.
7. Eat Homemade Gingerbread And Yam Cake At A Gas Station
Homemade baked goods and gas stations don’t sound mutually compatible, but at French Market Express, it is the absolute truth. This is no ordinary gas station. At French Market Express, customers can choose from many souvenir and gift items and enjoy a meal of Cajun food accompanied by roasted coffee and topped off with a delectable bakery treat.
Gingerbread baked fresh daily is very popular during the holidays. However, Louisiana Yam Cake is a delicious dessert that can only be found at French Market Express. This secret family recipe is baked into large and small cakes, small loaves, and tiny, two-bite sizes.
8. Take The Kids To Visit Santa At The Santa House On The Riverbank
Once Santa comes to town during the Christmas Festival Parade, kids know they can visit him at the Santa House beginning the very next day right up until December 23. Admission is free except on December 11 and 18, when armbands for those 7 and older must be purchased to get on the riverbank.
The history of the Santa House is poignant. In December of 1957, Jeanette Maggio took her four-year-old son Barry with her for Christmas shopping in Shreveport while her other children were at school. When they arrived at a large department store, Santa was seeing the children, but the line was long. Jeanette promised Barry they would come back when the line was shorter. She got busy with her shopping, then had to rush home to pick up the others from school and realized she had forgotten her promise about Santa. Little Barry is reported to have said, “That’s okay. I’ll see him next year.”
Tragically, Barry died the following October without getting to see Santa. His mom appealed to local civic organizations to build a place where all children could have a chance to see Santa. She promised to provide the Santa suit and candy canes. The first one was built a couple of years later in memory of her little boy.
When the Riverbank was completely remodeled in 2018, a completely new Santa House was constructed. Members of local civic clubs are responsible for always keeping the Santa House properly staffed.
Extra Holiday Fun In Natchitoches
There are many other wonderful holiday activities families in the area incorporate into their season. Buying pecans for baking at Little Eva’s Pecan Shop, eating smoked ham and pecan pie at Grayson’s Bar-B-Q, buying a commemorative poster, eating Sunday brunch at Mariner’s Restaurant, and attending the Christmas Gala on the campus of Northwestern State University are just a few of the choices. Visitors can plan for a family-focused celebration, a Girlfriends’ Getaway, or a romantic weekend and find an amazing number of options to include in their itinerary. Natchitoches is all about making Christmas special.