Experiencing the Holidays

Experiencing the Holidays

With Thanksgiving behind us and the tree ready for decorating in our front room, I can officially say we’re full swing into the holiday spirit. This is the time of year I make my wish list of must-hit events and prepare the kids for running full steam ahead until Christmas.

Caroling at Miracle on Fulton Street

We start with the tried and true ones, from Celebration in the Oaks at City Park to Santa, real reindeer and fake “snow” at the Miracle on Fulton Street. Then there’s the winter wonderland created in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel and the evening out sans children for a special Reveillon dinner.

We also try to mix in a few new experiences to brighten the holidays. Last year, we tried a children’s rendition of the Nutcracker at Loyola University and a staging of A Christmas Carol at the Contemporary Arts Center. For New Year’s, we ventured north to Natchitoches to experience the Christmas Festival of Lights, well worth the trip for anyone thinking of visiting this beautiful, historic town.

Natchitoches’ Christmas Festival of Lights

This year, I’ve been eyeing the Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker at the New Orleans Saenger. Perhaps we’ll set off out of town again to experience what the rest of the state has to offer. This weekend, the small town of Arnaudville pulls together some of the region’s best artists for Fire and Water: Le Feu et l’Eau Rural Arts Celebration. 

It’s also the time for holiday bonfires, which, believe it or not, we have never seen! Oak Alley hosts their 38th Annual Christmas Bonfire Party this Saturday, Dec. 7. The 24th Annual Festival of the Bonfires lights up next weekend in Lutcher, offering a glimpse into the much-anticipated Christmas Eve bonfire spectacular in Gramercy and Lutcher.

With so much going on, it’s hard to decide where to even begin. Perhaps start with my article in Country Roads on ways for “Lighting the Dark” this holiday season or check out their Calendar of Events for endless possibilities. Maybe we’ll see you around town as you discover the joy of winter in Louisiana.

Mr. Bingle at Celebration in the Oaks
The City of Lights: Natchitoches

The City of Lights: Natchitoches

I’ve wanted to visit the city of Natchitoches ever since first hearing about it in college. The town’s name alone implies someplace special and unique. Dubbed the “City of Lights” in honor of its Christmas light show during the holidays, Natchitoches has been featured in all the regional magazines as one of the must-see Southern towns.

View of the Red River from Grand Ecore Visitor’s Center

I don’t know what took us so long to get there, but we finally booked our hotel and began the four-hour drive northwest over the New Year’s weekend. Despite leaving early, we arrived late Saturday afternoon and took a quick drive-by peak at downtown before heading north to the Grand Ecore Visitor’s Center. Perched on an 80-foot bluff along the Red River, the Visitor Center offers spectacular views as well as a short trail along the bluff’s edge. Inside, various exhibits outline the history of the area, from paleontology and Native Americans to the Civil War and the importance of the Red River. We had made it just before closing time, and the kids had a brief window to try their hands at a simulator where they navigated a ship through a lock in the river.

Front Street

The gate closed behind us as we left the site to drive back into Natchitoches’ historic district. The evening sky was darkening already, and the city’s lights were blinking on over the street and across the banks of the Cane River Lake. Front Street, with its ornate buildings decorated with elaborate cast iron railings, was packed with people mingling about waiting for the last fireworks show of the holiday season. We mingled among them, window shopping through the Christmas-themed display of the 1863 Kaffie Frederick Hardware Store and peaking down alleys and into intimate restaurants.

Chilled from the winter air, we popped inside the Cane Brake Cafe for a late café au lait, “real” chocolate milk and the finest cupcakes I have ever seen, with a giant magnolia icing flower placed delicately on top. After the boys were re-sugarized, we let them loose along the river, where they danced under the fake snow blowing overhead and chatted with horses waiting for their next buggy tour. We made it the full length of the light show before racing back to the car, blowing warm air on our frost-bitten fingers.

Lasyone’s Meat Pie

Cruising Second Street to take in more sightseeing, we spotted the famous Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant. Rarely open past three o’clock, the restaurant had made an exception for the festival, and we landed one of the last tables for the night. To say their meat pies were good is a severe understatement. I’ve tried so-called “authentic Natchitoches meat pies” at several festivals in New Orleans, and they pale in comparison to the real thing. These amazing puffs of beef and pork melt in your mouth and are excellent paired with red beans and rice. My only regret is we didn’t buy a dozen frozen ones to bring home with us. The fireworks began as we exited the restaurant, and with my youngest crying in terror, we packed them into the car and found a church parking lot with a front-row view.

Day two in Natchitoches started at the National Fish Hatchery. Although the main hatchery is closed on Sundays, we tested the front door and discovered the aquarium is apparently open all the time. It was a large room lined with oversized fish tanks and a child-sized viewing platform underneath. My four-year-old snapped dozens of pictures, capturing every fish in the place, while August ran from tank to tank pointing and screaming “fish, fish!” I busied myself with the miniature Caddo Indian village depicting how life would have been for the Native Americans who had once thrived here, several of whom were found in a burial ground underneath the hatchery.

Ft. St. Jean Baptiste Historic Site

Returning to downtown in the daylight, we stopped to view the tops of the recreated 18th century buildings in the Ft. St. Jean Baptiste Historic Site. Unfortunately closed on Sundays, we had to settle with our miniscule look over the back fence and write it on the list for next time. Moving on, we snapped the obligatory photo of the “Steel Magnolias” house as well as pictures of the countless bed and breakfasts up and down nearly every street. Each one was more pristine and beautiful than the previous, and I wondered how anyone chose in which one to stay.

Roque House

At the end of the Cane Riverbank, we found the Roque House, an 1803, Creole architecture home moved to this location in 1967. The large roof of cypress shingles seems to cloak the building underneath, accented by exposed cypress posts placed right in the ground and filled with “bousillage,” a mixture of mud, Spanish moss and animal hair. Amazingly, the entire home was built with no nails.

Behind the house, a massive iron gate stood partially open, inviting us into a small park with a gentle waterfall to the river. We had the place to ourselves, and the kids chased each other back and forth across the bridges. It was our last stop before taking off for the Cane River Creole National Historical Park and Kisatchie National Forest, a journey worthy of its own separate blog.

Thanksgiving Pow Wow

Thanksgiving Pow Wow

Growing up in Alabama, a Thanksgiving family tradition was to visit the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, Ala., for their annual Pow Wow. This year, we continued the tradition by bringing our children to see the colorful costume displays, rhythmic dancing and Native American crafts.

Dancers compete at the Pow Wow

As the only federally recognized Indian tribe in Alabama, the Poarch Creek Indians trace their roots back to the original Creek Nation found throughout Alabama and Georgia. Today, the Indians live in a mostly rural reservation, dotted with sprawling cotton and corn fields and supplemented by a towering casino.

Although we arrived before lunch, the parking lot was nearly filled to capacity. A shuttle whisked us from our cars to the front entrance, where a small ticket booth marked the entrance to the large arena. The steady beat of drums signaled the location of the dancing competitions, and we climbed the bleachers to watch the men twirl and jump in their elaborately decorated and highly feathered outfits. The women, although much more subdued, showcased simpler yet exquisite costumes and a quiet graceful footwork.

While my nieces took time to pose with a few Native Americans, we headed out in search of food. Roasted corn, buffalo burgers, Indian tacos and fry bread were just a few of the options, and, of course, we tried them all.

Jumping high

I was amazed at how long the kids had lasted before darting over to the children’s area. They marveled and pointed at the bounce house maze and the bigger kids spinning and jumping in various stomach-turning machines. While their cousins braved the bungee cord jumper, demonstrating their mad flipping skills, my two settled on the pony ride–or at least looked at the ponies before deciding they were still a bit too scary.

Just then, a child walked by with a bow and arrow, and all thoughts of rides were immediately over. A double row of booths lined the outer edges of the festival, and we steadily made our way past one after another. The souvenirs and crafts were nearly overwhelming, as each booth offered beautiful displays of dreamcatchers, animal-print shirts, wooden toys and just about anything else imaginable.

Native crafts for sale

Wooden alligator and pop gun in hand, we settled down for one more round of dancing before giving in to the yawns for nap time. A stop by a final booth on our way out landed us prized, buffalo-tooth necklaces, a lasting souvenir for mom and dad.

Two Holiday Outings: Cirque Dreams Holidaze and Celebration in the Oaks

Two Holiday Outings: Cirque Dreams Holidaze and Celebration in the Oaks

During this magical holiday season, we decided to take the kiddos on a tour of some of the “magic” happening around town. At nearly 4 years old, Charles seemed prepared for his debut into the theater scene. A travelzoo offer got us $11 tickets to Cirque Dreams Holidaze, and although the acrobatic circus show started a bit late in the evening, we couldn’t pass up the deal.

Frosty the Snowman at Celebration in the Oaks

All dressed up in his collared shirt and navy pants, Charles had even allowed us to brush his hair before we set out for the Mahalia Jackson Theater. Armstrong Park’s fountains of water danced in the artificial light, and we half ran (a.k.a. chased down Charles) over the various bridges to see what sculptures had been added since our last visit. When my feet started screaming at the heels I was wearing, I resorted to telling Charles he’d better stick close or else the ogres living behind the trees would get him. I’m sure my stories will one day give this child a complex, but at the time, it convinced him to walk beside us.

A performer balances rings in the air.

He was excited, though, by his big-boy night out, and every little detail enthralled him – right down to his favorite-color-blue lights that lit the stairways to our seats. And the show itself was captivating with fast-paced music, lots of color and twisting and turning acrobats performing nearly impossible feats. From juggling and roller skating to flying and clothes changing, these performers were true artists of their trade and kept us all hanging on the edge of our seats.

Two child star performers particularly impressed Charles, and throughout intermission, he practiced his own moves by balancing both legs and arms on the chairs around us. By the second half, he was reaching his limit though, and after he watched two acts through half-closed lids and sprawled across our laps, Paul and I hoisted him up and exited the theater. Before passing out in his car seat, he gave me a sheepish smile and said, “You know the girl with the thing on her head, she was pretty, mom.”

The evening’s success gave us confidence to take both kids over (a few days later) to City Park’s Celebration in the Oaks. Every inch of the Botanical Gardens, Storyland and Carousel Gardens were covered in “a festival of lights.”

Rides spin and twist at City Park’s amusement park

While August ooh’d and aah’d at the colors and pointed at every light his stroller got near, Charles was fixated on the rides in the amusement park. People were zooming in circles on the Scrambler and Tilt-a-Whirl and falling from the sky on the Monkey Jump. He stared wide-eyed, but glued to his seat, too afraid to move an inch…until he spotted the carousel. Now this was his kind of ride, and several minutes later he was up on a horse grinning with delight. Meanwhile, August was crying his eyes out, perhaps scared that his big brother was galloping away into the night.

The lights became more elaborate as you entered the Botanical Gardens, and at one point, they flashed and created fantastic displays illuminating the story of the “Cajun Night Before Christmas.” In other spots, dripping icicles covered massive live oaks and Frosty the Snowman danced under the stars. It was indeed a magical place, and the boys enjoyed every moment of it.

Halloween Hauntings

Halloween Hauntings

This Halloween weekend, we took advantage of the ghouls and goblins haunting New Orleans. We kicked it off Friday night at Audubon Zoo’s “Boo at the Zoo,” where hundreds of Jedis, princesses and fairytale characters had replaced the usual wild animals found at the zoo. We had left the little one home with his Omi (granny) and brought T-Rex Charlie out for the festivities.

A French Quarter butler

Charles was in his element, stomping around in his miniature dinosaur costume, playing toddler games and trying out his “trick or treat!” yell. Bag overflowing with candy, he begged us to take him on the ghost train, which unfortunately was not recommended for a three year old. Instead, we entered the Dinosaur Adventure, which looked creepily realistic in the dark. Charles was scared just enough to keep him clinging to me, and we both jumped when one of those sneaky reptiles shot a spray of water out of his mouth right at our foreheads.

On Saturday, before attending a Halloween party in the French Quarter, we strolled the historic streets looking for decorations. The French Market had donned a large pumpkin around its entrance and set up a mini maze for children, while several homes greeted visitors with spooky butlers and flying witches. Meanwhile, on St. Charles Avenue, some of the city’s most beautiful mansions had transformed into haunted houses, with skeletons playing across their yards and jack-o-lanterns staring us down with glowing eyes.

Having a haunting good time in Faubourg St. John

By the time Halloween Day arrived, I already had to sew up both tails on the well-worn T-Rex and Triceratops costumes. Paul and I both left work early to prepare the kids for Faubourg St. John’sBounty on the Bayou.” Policemen passing out glowing necklaces had blocked the streets surrounding Fortier Park, where children of all ages were munching on free hotdogs and popcorn. Every house in the area was open for trick or treating, and we made a haul in candy–lots and lots of candy that has now somehow found its way into every room in my house. I counted the night a victory when Charles looked up at me under his dinosaur head and said, “Only two more houses, mommy. Then we’re done.”