By Mina King
Winter in Louisiana isn’t defined by cold fronts, the turning of leaves, or this foreign phenomenon I’ve heard of called “snow.” Instead, temperatures stay as high as our ever-present morale; the climate is thoughtful enough not to interfere with the avid sportsmens’ activities. However, do not be misled by the lack of snow, for our winter is as wonderful as any. The scent of cinnamon and spice intermingled with beignets and meat pies’ produce a distinctive aroma that wafts and waltzes through alleyways like a saxophone’s melodious recounting of “The Christmas Song” (with a few extra jazzy notes here and there). And, while snowballs may not be rolling, the good times certainly are.
Founded in 1714, even before the formation of Louisiana, I think it’s fair to claim that Natchitoches has had ample time to perfect its Christmas season, and indeed it has. Though centuries old, the downtown buildings remain impeccably preserved, showcasing their angled porches and wrought iron railings. The imposing structures, as compact as the crowds, stand tall and expectantly mirroring the families below anxiously anticipating fireworks.
One particular downtown home remains prominent in my mind. This breathtaking edifice that accommodates Hanna’s Habatchi and Steak House is complete with a charming koi pond. A flight of stairs leads past a swing where I’ve spent innumerable hours waiting for an LSU football game’s end. Then my grandfather, deemed “Popeye” for his penchant of whistling the tune of Popeye the Sailor Man, would accompany me to the Rocking Horse Toy Shop only a block away. The second floor is the home of my Grandparents’ benevolent friends Mrs. Mary Ann and Mr. Rick. Annually, they host a Christmas party and invite my family to view the Natchitoches Christmas Festival Parade that marches along the red, brick street beneath her balcony. We arrive grateful with arms filled by Lasyone’s famous meat pies in hand. After unloading more trays of food than there are residents of Natchitoches, my family makes its way down to the festival market with its clusters of booths. The booths sell items of admirable diversity from wooden toys, bows, paintings (often featuring Saint Nicholas meandering through the bayou in his pirogue pulled by twelve alligators), sauces, spices, wood sculptures, and much more. Perhaps, the most intriguing characteristic of the products is that the majority of them are homemade. In my opinion, the skill, time, and unmitigated talent required in every item’s production make them priceless wonders.
After the market booths, we wander to the riverfront shops and restaurants, every one adorned for the holiday season often with an amusing Cajun twist. Lights are strung from street lamp to street lamp, and every possible place in between, intertwining in sumptuous patterns like that of a couple waltzing. Residing at the end of a breathtaking tunnel of lights is none other than good ole Saint Nick himself. . He is accompanied by the “Christmas Belles” – helpers who are winners in the “Miss Merry Christmas Pageant.” The pageant’s ultimate winner, Miss Merry Christmas herself, awaits to be seen at the end of the parade.
After every kid recites their Christmas list to Santa, which may take a long while, we saunter to the edge of Cane River. The river bank is embroidered with pumpkins and scarecrows, a lovely contrast to the frostbitten grass. The other side of the river is lined with lights depicting animated Christmas scenes. Though visible in daylight, the lights are truly a sight against the complementary background of an inky black sky sparkling with fireworks.
Food trucks and games also dapple the riverfront. Interestingly, modern inventions like bungee jumping and carnival food converge with historic monuments. A great example of such common anachronisms is the Roque House. This home, an admirably sturdy combination of cypress wood and bousillage infill (a mixture of red clay, moss, and deer hair), was constructed by a freed slave in 1803 and remains standing still! Occasionally, “snow machines” mottle the streets with a soapy resemblance as horse drawn carts clip-clop through the winter wonderland.
With our stride slowed by an abundance of new trinkets and food, we then return to Mrs. Mary Ann’s home. Our family disperses; some cordially circumscribe the tv , perpetually displaying football games, while others drift towards the enticing assortment of delectables. With a beignet in hand, I retreat to the balcony that overlooks Front Street abounding with activity, an indication of the approaching parade. Soon, a compelling combination of floats and bands alike pass. Their sweet presence marked by the candy left behind. Every float is enthralling, but the most ostentatious of all is indisputably Miss Merry Christmas’. The pageant winner is a Natchitoches High school senior resplendently attired in an ornate vermillion dress with a train as long as Natchitoches’ history. Even before my first Natchitoches Christmas Parade, I had admired the dress from the pictures of my mother as Miss Merry Christmas in 1992. Night follows the parade and is soon replaced by lights so abundant, it’s as if all the stars were stolen from the sky and strung together.
Yet, Natchitoches still finds a way to further brighten downtown. From the porch, the beginning of the show is clear. A tidal stream of sparks cascade from the bridge linking the sides of Cane River with a magnificent waterfall of fireworks. Then, fireworks illuminate the sky! I find them truly astounding not merely because of their captivating colors but for their dependable presence throughout all the years of my life.
The resplendent radiance brought by every bang returns every year without fail. My family has viewed these fireworks while enduring family illnesses, divorces, and various other hardships and challenges, but in the end we sit together and admire the beauty of the illuminated city that teaches us we can persevere beyond adversities. While some circumstances may change, I know that Christmas in Natchitoches never will; in that I find comfort.
Mina King is the Granddaughter of Frank and Gail Hines of Natchitoches, Louisiana