Amanda Shaw slides her bow across her fiddle and belts Hank Williams' classic Cajun tune "Jambalaya" on the Riverbank stage in Natchitoches, Louisiana, where the 95th annual Festival of Lights is underway. "Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and filé gumbo…sun of a gun, we'll have big fun on the bayou!" She sings. The crowd claps to the beat while the kids center stage spin in arms-spread-wide circles. These are the jubilant moments leading up to the big reveal: the night the oldest city in Louisiana illuminates more than 300,000 Christmas bulbs to quite literally turn on the holidays. From now until Epiphany on January 6, the appropriately dubbed "City of Lights" will sparkle with holiday magic only replicated by Hallmark movies. There will be events such as a 5K, a holiday boat parade, and a tour of homes, too, but at the end of the day, it's all about the lights.
"Kids will tell you where they were the first time they saw the lights," says lifelong Natchitoches resident and former president of Northwestern State University Chris Maggio. For Maggio, it's when his uncle, Charles Maggio, who helped build some of the city's first set-pieces, would load up his nieces and nephews to let them flip the switches to turn on the town's lights. "As kids, we would come every night, and even though there were a ton of us, everyone got a turn," he recalls.
On their cue, Miss Merry Christmas Julia Ferrell and her six Christmas Belles, Amelia Broadway, Anna Catherine Coleman, Tinley Durr, Liliana Greier, Madison Raymond, and Natalie Spillman, appear on stage and introduce themselves one by one. The high school seniors are each dressed in velvet dresses trimmed in white fur with white go-go style boots. Miss Merry Christmas wears red while the Belles don green, but all are smiling ear to ear. This is their night. "I've always seen Miss Merry Christmas all over town. I want to give back to my community and make sure everyone knows how wonderful it is to live in Natchitoches," says Ferrell.
While the festivities are over a month-long with fireworks taking place every Saturday night throughout the festival, the town really shines on the first Saturday in December, Festival Day, when nearly 20,000 people will descend on Natchitoches. There's Mistletoe Market, the annual arts and crafts fair; live music on the Riverbank stage; a 25-minute firework show; and, there's the Festival of Lights parade where approximately 70 floats, dance teams, and bands, roll through the streets. The parade will see Miss Merry Christmas waving to her holiday kingdom and Santa finally making his way into town.
For locals and tourists alike, this is the main event, and nothing can get in the way of the jolliest day of the year. "My mom was induced early because I was going to be born on Christmas Fest day," says Ferrell. "I turn 18 the night before the parade! They've always called me the Christmas Fest baby, so it's an honor to be this year's Miss Merry Christmas."
Front Street, the brick-lined main thoroughfare, is where most of the magic happens. Window displays at various shops and restaurants are draped in holiday bows and garland greenery. Faux snow is even added to exteriors. Shoppers can pick up everything from handmade fudge to precious antiques. Pied a Terre stocks its own line of Natchitoches-inspired candles and Natchitoches Art Guild and Gallery displays work by area artists. Kathy Tate Davis, for example, sculpts dried okra pods into delightfully curly bearded, hat-wearing Santa Claus ornaments. At Tres Bien Antiques, owned by lifelong resident Henry Cook Taylor, Junior, and his wife, Debbie, you'll find curated antique and vintage finds. Then of course there's Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile which was established in 1863 and still uses cash registers from the early 1900s.
As with any good festival, the food is just as exciting as the events. Vendors serve typical carnival eats such as corn dogs, cotton candy, and funnel cake, but you can nosh on local delicacies too. Restaurants open their doors for imbibers to grab a table or a to-go drink such as a creamy hot chocolate or a peppery Bloody Mary. Lasyone's, whose main location is a few blocks west of Front Street, sets up a tent of grab-and-go specialties. Crawfish pies are a must-have. Picture a flaky empanada filled with tender, spicy crawfish tails.
Natchitoches sits along the banks of Cane River Lake, a 35-mile U-shaped body of water that claims over $200 million annual agriculture value, which includes commodities such as soybeans, cotton, and pecans. Grand low country and Victorian-style homes sit along its shoreline, many of which have turned from private homes into well-appointed bed and breakfasts and all of which are decked in splashy holiday decor. In fact, there are 28 bed and breakfasts throughout Natchitoches, and many are within walking distance to Front Street. Visitors can choose to stay the night at the popular Steel Magnolia House, yes, the very one where Shelby Eatenton married Jackson Latcherie, or closer to the river at homes such as Violet Hill Bed and Breakfast which, true to its name, is dressed to the Christmas nines in shades of purple.
Regardless of where you stay, what you eat, or how you spend your time in Natchitoches, locals will remark again and again that it's a special place. "The festival is a throwback to simpler times. We open our city and our hearts to family and friends near and far," says Maggio.