by Jude Southerland Kessler … https://www.johnlennonseries.
When you hear the phrase, “Christmas in Louisiana,” Alexandria might not be the first city that springs to mind. But growing up in Cenla of the 1950s and early 1960s, “Alex” had a rather rich heritage of special, unique Christmas events.
As a kindergartener, I remember my parents dressing up to take me “downtown” to the City Hall lawn to see “The Dancing Waters.” This performance of leaping fountains – artistically coordinated to Christmas music and vividly colored lights – was … well, magical. The waters leapt to the exuberant “Hall of the Mountain King” and gently swirled to “Silent Night.” And I remember singing along to the performance’s grand finale of “Joy to the World.”
Afterwards, families would stroll together down Third Street to Wellan’s Department Store’s animated windows where elves cobbled together a lively assortment of rocking horses, toy soldiers, and baby dolls. In the central window, Frosty trundled (albeit a bit hurkily jerkily) down a snowy knoll and then spun onto a mirrored pond. And above him, glittered snowflakes (suspended by invisible fishing lines from the ceiling) twirled in a soft stream of forced air. Back then, no one I knew had made the long trek out to California’s new wonder, Disneyland; Wellan’s window was as close as we could come to “animatronics.” It was fascinating.
Christmas shopping on the Saturday after Thanksgiving was a family tradition. My mother donned one of her best dresses, nylons, heels, a hat, and of course, gloves. My dad strutted about in his fawn-colored overcoat and a banded fedora. And my younger sister Lisa and I wore matching outfits.
One year, my mother’s planned “ensemble” for her daughters encountered a speed bump. Okay, to be honest, it was more like a “fatal flaw.” Even before we’d departed home, my sister was vehemently complaining about the “scratchy” (100% wool) Christmas slacks we’d been assigned to wear. As I recall, she did her dead level best to renounce them. But my mother’s will was even stronger than Lisa’s, and so, a half hour later, Lisa and I entered Wellan’s wearing the much-debated red-and-green-plaid slacks beneath cream-colored sweaters.
However, the minute my mother’s attention was diverted at the long, central perfume and cosmetics counter, Lisa took charge. She unzipped the rough slacks and pushed them swiftly to the floor. Quickly, she stepped out. Then, smiling wide with relief, my sister never looked back. She jetted off for the shoe department where a purchase of one particular brand of children’s shoes could win the lucky wearer a golden egg with toys inside. I can’t remember what my mother’s reaction to Lisa’s liberation was, but I know this: my sister was never ever coerced into donning those miserable pants again. (And, thankfully, neither was I!)
The highlight of each year’s Christmas shopping “extravaganza” was lunch in the lovely Hotel Bentley. It was for this delight that my mother had so carefully dressed. It was a rare occasion. Only moments after stepping down into the dimly-lit dining room with its crisp white linen tablecloths and polished stemware, we were seated at a large, round, central table. Instrumental Christmas music underlaid the sounds of muted conversation and the clink of silverware on fine china. My father muttered something about the famous ham-and-turkey triple decker club sandwich while my mother removed her gloves and reminded us to employ “inside voices.” The annual family outing was hushed and formal, but filled with a sense of wonder. And great joy.
After lunch, our quick trek across the street to Weiss and Goldring’s Department store brought another host of holiday marvels. After being greeted warmly by Mr. Harry Silver, my father strolled off to peruse men’s suits, while my mother superintended the ritual of selecting the “once-a-year Christmas slippers” … gold glittered slippers with tiny bows at the toe or fat, fuzzy red slippers sporting fat snowball ties. Kind and smiling Alvin Mykoff patiently offered up box after box of fine footwear as Lisa rejected one pair as “too pinchy” and another as “too rough.” The hunt for the Christmas slippers was never a simple “feet,” but I never recall us walking away empty-handed.
One of the delights in Weiss and Goldring was, of course, the escalator. And the fact that we were admonished to “Hold on carefully … this is very dangerous!” made the ride to the second floor even more thrilling. One year, at the top of the escalator, the store owners had situated a telephone through which a child could talk to Santa Claus. When you lifted the receiver, a happy male voice “Ho, ho, ho-ed!” and asked your name. Shyly, hesitantly, we chatted with Santa – convincing him that we had been at least reasonably well-behaved and then, more boldly, giving our Christmas lists. I found the whole experience breath-taking … and frankly, a little bit frightening. Talking on the telephone to Santa! Who would’ve believed it possible?
There were other unique holiday moments that only Cenla could offer: Ethma Odum’s yearly reading of The Littlest Angel on her KALB TV show; the burgeoning candy aisle in Kress’s Five and Dime; and the elegant decorations in my mother’s favorite gift shop, Hill-Harris. But clearly, the most spectacular aspect of Cenla’s Christmas season was the lighted water tower overlooking busy McArthur Drive. The first year I remember that extravagant stream of lights flowing from the tower’s peak was, I think, 1963 … the year that we lost President Kennedy, and the year that I first heard about The Beatles. 1963 was full of “front page news.” And that bright, spectacular waterfall of lights enchanted my family and me, even as we rushed here and there, shopping for last-minute gifts, grabbing a quick hamburger at Reed & Bell’s or stopping for a chipped beef barbeque sandwich at Johnny and Jim’s. Christmas in Cenla that year was never-to-be-forgotten. For good or for bad, 1963 was a year that changed us all, a year that swept us into a new awareness. 1963 … yes, that was the year that the lights came on.
When I was in my early teens, my family moved to Natchitoches. That winter, I discovered the spectacular Natchitoches Christmas Festival with its impressive afternoon parade, live bands on the riverfront, aromatic riverbank stalls full of sugar-coated funnel cakes and hot meat pies, and at night, the incredible fireworks presentation and lighting of the city. One would think that against that backdrop the simple family Christmases of my childhood would have dulled in comparison. But the Yuletide traditions of my Cenla Noels were still charming and bright in my memory … still filled with an innocent wonder that could never be replaced, a sweetness that could never be captured again.
A Louisiana Christmas…like no other! Whether we hail from Pineville, Natchitoches, Bunkie, Mansfield,Alexandria, or Lecompte, Louisianians all hold cherished and unique holiday memories. Whether you spend Christmas Eve at the levee bonfires between Mississippi and Louisiana, directing Père Noël to our fair state, or whether you kneel solemnly in a candle-lit midnight mass, each Louisiana girl or boy has a story to tell. How special they are and what memories they evoke.
And “from me to you,” please know that as 2021 comes to a close, I wish you all a renewed sense of family, community, and wonder. As we look forward to reuniting in person (!) with those we love, you are sincerely wished a season of happy memories and peace.