By Holly Penta
The Natchitoches Christmas Festival is by far the town’s biggest tourist attraction. The whole downtown transforms into a winter wonderland. Jill Leo, the Director of Festivals and Events for the Historic District Business Association (HDBA), estimates that throughout the festival’s six-week run 500,000 people will attend.
Leo said “kids are wowed” by the festivities and “parents and grandparents are eager to bring their kids and grandkids to recreate memories.” Residents and tourists alike, people of all generations, can enjoy the festivities.
Thousands of lights are strung all along the city, fake snow blows across the streets, and food and vendor booths will be set up throughout downtown Natchitoches. Santa is planning to visit, and this year, for the first time ever, reindeer joined him! The parade has new floats with new themes that are being kept a secret.
Lee Waskom, a member of the HDBA, said that it’s particularly exciting for the kids who get to participate in the parade. It’s something “they will always remember.”
The biggest attraction is the fireworks that go off every Saturday night during the festival. These fireworks are some of the biggest and most elaborate in the country. Both Waskom and Leo compare the show to Disneyland and Disney World pyrotechnics, the top two biggest firework displays in the United States. Waskom said the fireworks “definitely draw the biggest crowd,” bringing thousands of people to the banks of the Cane River to watch.
This year, the firework budget increased allowing $105,000 to be spent on fireworks for all six weeks of the festival. Over $35,000 worth of fireworks will be shot off on Dec. 1 for Festival Day alone.
So many people come to see the fireworks, but so few of them think about the behind the scenes work. Craig George, the person in charge of the firework display, explains that setting them up is “extremely time consuming” and requires a lot of labor. He works with 8-10 other people to set up the shows.
The “racks,” the wooden crates used to hold the mortars in place, are handmade and each rack is strategically placed along the riverbank. George said he and the other workers have an “internal map” of where the fireworks need to be positioned, since they’ve been setting up the festival for so many years. The setup usually starts on the Monday before the fireworks are scheduled to be set off and they gradually get each rack in place throughout the week. Once the bridge gets closed at 4:30 pm on Saturdays, last minute preparations begin.
Each year, new attractions are added to the festivities to keep things interesting for returning visitors. According to Leo, this year will feature water effects, including a “ballet on water” to give the festival “a new stand point.” The ballet on water will shoot directly out of Cane River, allowing the lights to dance and twirl across the surface for 45 seconds while the sparks glow. The other nautical firework sequences create a waterfall effect along the river, adding depth to the reflections of all the Christmas lights.
So much hard work is put into preparing for the Natchitoches Christmas Festival and each year thousands of guests love it. Everyone at the HDBA is looking forward to an amazing festival this year. Merry Christmas Natchitoches!
Photo by Kevin Shannahan