by Jude Southerland Kessler
Louisianians live in a state of Christmas. From the grand congregation of Christmas trees adorned in white lights, filling the lobby of New Orleans’s Roosevelt Hotel to the majestic Christmas Eve bonfires dotting the Mississippi River levy and lighting the way for Père Noël, we dwell in a state that embraces this holy and festive holiday. One trip to Louisiana’s diverse metropolitan cities will clearly demonstrate our love for diversity, our belief in co-existence, but we’re also a state that features St. Tammany Parish, St. Bernard Parish, Ascension Parish, and many, many schools christened Holy Cross. Our Christian roots are apparent in our street names, landmarks, and culture.
Yet, as Louisianians do with everything from football to Mardi Gras, we celebrate the holidays in our own singular and exceptional ways. Some sing and dance to the sounds of Zydeco. Some prayerfully attend church services , such as the beautiful midnight mass at Monroe’s historic St. Matthew’s. Some purchase pecan pies from Lecompte’s original Lea’s Bake Shop or West Monroe’s Lea’s on Louisville. Others trek out to Grayson’s Barbecue, just north of Natchitoches, for a turkey you’ll never forget. Louisiana at Christmas is a state of celebration, with subtle shades and nuances that spell “unique.”
My first 13 Christmases were spent in Alexandria. Last year in this column, I reminisced about the magical 1950s dancing waters on the lawn of Alexandria’s Court House … and the animated windows of Wellan’s Department Store. I’ll never forget shopping downtown for presents and pausing for an elegant Christmas luncheon in the Hotel Bentley … or dashing in for a quick (but very delicious!) chipped pork barbeque sandwich at Johnny and Jim’s as we ran Christmas Eve last-minute errands. Christmas in Alexandria was a thrill!
Then, in January 1965, my family moved to Natchitoches, and I began hearing exciting tales of their annual Christmas Festival. No description, however, could have prepared me for that first Saturday in December when Christmas sprang to (larger-than) life with a wonderful parade of bands, floats, and dignitaries … and a riverbank overflowing with vendors of meat pies, funnel cakes, and sweet treats! Decorated to the hilt, stores were brimming with gifts, music, hot chocolate! And then that night … the grand finale: the booming fireworks over Cane River followed by the first illumination of the city, with its 27-miles of holiday lights compacted into the magnificent downtown area.
My first Christmas Festival was an icy one. I was a “Booster” at East Natchitoches Junior High School and rode on a float with thirty other shivering Boosters and cheerleaders…all of us in typical 1960s short skirts and shaking our pom poms. There was no way to don thermal underwear (as my father strongly recommended!) or even tights or a coat. We had to “smile and wave, boys … smile and wave.” By the end of the hour-long parade, I hobbled back to the meeting place with my parents. My feet were utterly frozen, but I was grinning ear-to-ear. This, I thought, was the way to bring in the holidays!
Over the years, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival provided so many amazing memories “in my life.” I saw Neil Diamond in the NSU after-fireworks concert. I danced at the Episcopal Church Fellowship Hall to the sounds of the Square Circle. And years later, my husband and I took our soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Paige, on a carriage ride through Natchitoches’s historic city streets. I waved at my buddy Bobby Harling when he was selected Grand Marshal for the afternoon parade. And I enjoyed so many incredible (unforgettable) festival day luncheons in the home of Gay and L.J. Melder, where my family always enjoyed the parade with their dear friends. Natchitoches knew how to welcome Christmas with aplomb!
I know as you’re reading this that you’re thinking of your own sweet memories. Minden, I’ve heard, has a superb two-day festival (this year on Dec. 16-17) called “Christmas in Minden” complete with a late afternoon parade, fireworks, and a free holiday movie in the park. (For 2022, it’s “Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer”!) And on December 10, Bossier City boasts their exciting Bossier Night Market with food trucks, live music, and hundreds of vendors selling everything from crafts to jewelry, Christmas wreaths and décor, ceramics, and vintage items. Mansfield, too, has an 11 a.m. Christmas parade (on 10 December this year). My guess is that every city, town, and village in our charming state does something special to welcome the “most wonderful time of the year” … and these moments, over the decades, have touched your hearts.
The staff here at 318Central would love to hear from you. We’d love for you to take us on a stroll down memory lane back to the days of your Louisiana childhood and teen years. Please take a moment to share your holiday memories with all of us. If your family has a beautiful tradition that you’ve always enjoyed, we’d love to know about that as well. It is the season to be not only jolly but also sentimental, thoughtful, and kind. It would be a gift to us all to share in your lovely, personal story.
We’re sipping an eggnog by the fire and ready to listen…shine on.