The oldest town in the Louisiana Purchase and the Bayou State may surprise you. First inhabited by the Native American Caddo tribe, Natchitoches (pronounced “Nack-i-Tish”) was established in 1714 by French explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis. Originally an outpost for trading along the former Red River, now “Cane River Lake,” these lands are influenced by the Caddo, French, Spanish, Africans, and later the Creole (not to be confused with Cajun) people, creating a melting pot of cultures with many stories to share.
Organized into Parishes instead of Counties, the State of Louisiana appropriately designated this region as “Caddo Parish.” Also first occupied by the Caddo tribe and one hundred miles to the west, Nacogdoches is known as the oldest town in Texas and the “sister city” to Natchitoches. While Nacogdoches is home to just over 32,000 people and Stephen F. Austin State University, her charming northwest Louisiana sibling is home to just under 18,000 residents, Northwestern State University, and one of the best Christmas Festivals in the entire country. The Natchitoches Christmas festival tradition began in 1927, when Max Burgdof strung Christmas lights along brick-lined Front Street at Cane River Lake. Through the decades, the festival has evolved into a six week family-friendly celebration of the Christmas season beginning in November, running through New Year’s Eve, and anticipated all year long.
The Festival. . . And Louisiana Saturday Nights
On the Saturday before Thanksgiving, the City of Natchitoches lights up the night and kicks off the season with a stunning display of Fireworks over Cane River Lake, lined with thousands of light displays reflecting brilliant colors off the water. First grab a seat at the amphitheater on the water to hear live music performed by local and regional performers (such as Wayne Toups) who set the tone for holiday fun and favorite foods served by vendors along the river banks. Everyone loves to visit the Santa Claus House, where members of local civic organizations dress up like Santa every night of the season, and every child has a chance to meet with the man himself.
The first Saturday of December typically marks the official Christmas Festival Day, celebrated with a special parade of holiday floats, college and high school bands, dancers, and Miss Merry Christmas, who all begin their route at Northwestern State University (NSU) and travel through the city’s Historic District. Check the schedule for special events such as the Kids Fest with an artificial snow hill, Cookies with Santa, and the lighted boat parade spreading even more Christmas cheer up and down the Cane. Early arrival downtown means grabbing a good parking spot, strolling along Front Street, and stopping into unique shops, including the oldest business in the city. Dating back to 1863, the Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile closely resembles the original 19th century store while continues to sell a wide variety of items from farm and garden supplies, to Radio Flyer wagons, Christmas decor, and even a host of kitchen and dinnerware items very popular for local wedding registries. You can feel the spirit every month of the year and stock up on unique ornaments at Stella’s Christmas Boutique and More. Check the Front Street shops for the annual Natchitoches Christmas Festival poster, which makes a perfect keepsake while also benefiting the scholarship funds of NSU’s Creative and Performing Arts students.
Into the Woods
Take a short drive to the Dark Woods Adventure Park to see over 250,000 LED lights at Christmas in the Park. This year-round adventure park, locally owned and operated by Jason and Mardy Summerlin, brings Christmas to life over seven wooded acres that transform into a winter wonderland filled with activities and treats for the entire family. The ideal location to visit with Santa and his friends, Dark Woods is home to “Kringle’s Outpost.” Here, you can get your photo with Santa and let him know everything on your wishlist. Mrs. Klaus is known to host story time at the Outpost, Blitzen the reindeer may pop up to greet you, and Pepper Minstix the Elf is known to dance a Christmas jig on many nights. Be sure to sample the famous Dark Woods mini-donuts with flavors of maple bacon, vanilla, or chocolate. Pull up a seat around the campfire to make s’mores with your friends. Grab a meat pie and a caramel apple, while you look for the singing Merry Christmas trees. Not only is Dark Woods known for their magical Christmas displays, they are wildly popular at Halloween for their haunted trails. Plans are in the works for even more year-round fun events and exhibits, adding to the fun and entertainment the Summerlins are so passionate about bringing to Natchitoches area residents and visitors.
Tour of Homes
During the Festival, the Natchitoches Historic Foundation hosts two walking tours, the “Tinsel and Treats Historic Porch Tour” and the “Christmas Tour of Homes.” Each tour showcases several of the city’s most historic houses, inviting attendees to listen to current owners bring the homes to life by sharing the background and stories unique to each home. Begin at the NHF headquarters, also known as the Cunningham Law Office (1860) on Second Street, and work your way to the Chaplin House (1892), featured as “Fern’s House” in the 1989 star-studded film Steel Magnolias. Stroll down to the plantation-style Scott Corner House (circa 1900s), followed by the Laureate House, the Jefferson House, and the Prudhomme-Rouquier House, also the city’s oldest home dating back to 1790. Here you can see a sample of the original primitive clay walls (called “Bousillage”) often used in the earliest construction. Also of historical significance and architectural beauty are the churches of the district. Decorated with stations of the cross, Advent wreaths and lighted trees, the First United Methodist Church (1878) and The (minor) Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (1857) invite you to learn about their deep roots and positions in the various religious communities of town while enjoying the holiday ambiance. Adding to the porch tour are holiday treats at each house, ranging from wine, eggnog, hot chocolate, cookies, and perhaps even a cup of homemade gumbo served by gracious hosts and residents. While the Porch Tour is limited to exterior views, the Christmas Tour of Homes opens its doors to interior views. Highlights of the 2022 tour included the 1853 Bayou Amulet House where Christmas carolers greet guests upon their arrival, and the 1837 Lemee House, also featured as character Ouiser Boudreax’s house in Steel Magnolias. After learning about the Lemee home’s historical significance, you can sit down on the backyard bench where Clairee told Ouiser, “You know I love you more than my luggage.” While the official 1841 four-story Steel Magnolia House was not open for touring, you can stop for outside photos at this top destination on the “Natchitoches Film Trail” and book a room at their BNB, if you’re lucky enough to snag a reservation. Be sure to stop by the Natchitoches Convention and Visitors Bureau at 780 Front Street for more information about how to make the most of your visit, and learn more about the various films that have helped put this little Louisiana city on the Hollywood map.
Where to Rest and Recharge
Known for their quaint and historical Bed and Breakfast Inns, Natchitoches books up early and especially at Christmastime. Within walking distance of Front Street and nestled in the heart of the Historic District in addition to the favorite Steel Magnolia House are the Jefferson House overlooking the Cane River Lake, the charming Green Gables Inn, and the Good House Bed and Breakfast. For lodging with local character and hotel amenities, consider the city’s largest boutique hotel at the Chateau Saint Denis Hotel, or check into the comfortably elegant Church Street Inn. National hotel groups such as The Comfort Suites and Holiday Inn Express may have more availability on short notice, while located closer to attractions like the Dark Woods Adventure Park.
A Taste of Natchitoches
While the city is filled with delicious Louisiana cuisine, one of her longest standing family-run and even world-renowned eating establishments is called Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant. A delightful treat any time of day but ideal for lunch, the meat pie is made from a thin pastry shell traditionally filled with a spicy ground meat mixture and fried into a golden pocket of goodness. Lasyone’s crawfish and shrimp pies, along with their legendary red beans and rice also earn rave reviews and a top spot on the menu. Beloved by local residents and visitors alike, Lasyone’s draws a crowd. Early arrival beats the lunch rush, and you can check out the memorabilia on the walls which are filled with photos of celebrities who have stopped in for a hot, savory pie at this Natchitoches tradition. Arrive as early as 7 am for the traditional meat pie breakfast, but doors close at 2 pm weekdays, 3 pm on weekends, and fully close on Sundays. Also high on the eatery list and open from just 10:30 am to 3 pm most days, Merci Beaucoup Restaurant serves generous portions of Cajun-American fare with some of the best bread pudding in town. If searching for drinks, shrimp po-boys, or simply a delicious steak for dinner, then stop into Mayeaux’s Steak and Seafood restaurant directly on Front Street. Take advantage of typically moderate winter temperatures for outside patio and deck seating, overlooking the river lights at Maglieaux’s Riverfront Restaurant. Opt for the hearty half-pound Betty Jean burger, hen and andouille gumbo, shrimp and corn chowder, or the fried catfish St. Denis. . . covered with crawfish etouffee and fried okra.
The first Saturday of each month from 9 a.m. to noon, you are in for a treat at the Cane River Commissary, where you do not want to miss “passing a good time” at their Zydeco Breakfast. Located near the river in the community of Natchez (just a few miles from Front Street in Natchitoches), Cane River Commissary packs the house for this wildly popular event. During the Christmas season, the breakfast may get bumped to the weekend after the Festival, so be sure to check the schedule. The Lacour Trio plays Zydeco, Blues and much more, while you sit back to enjoy the show and your mimosas, hot coffee, shrimp and grits. Grab your partner and hit the floor for a little Cajun waltz and line dancing. Arrive before 9 a.m. to grab a covered table for brunch, or just bring a lawn chair for the music. Inside seating is also available, but you don’t want to miss a priceless performance by the very talented Katrice LaCour. Known to play his trumpet and accordion both in the same number while showing off some fancy footwork in his sparkly shoes, Katrice tells his jokes with a lovely, thick drawl that makes no mistake you are deep in the heart of Creole country.
Tour Fort St. Jean Baptiste
Natchitoches’s rich and vibrant history cannot be told without Fort St Jean Baptiste. In 1716, Commandant Sieur Charles Claude Dutisne was sent to Natchitoches where he set up the fort and small French outpost. Over time, the fort played a vital role in trade relationships with the Caddo Indians and the Spanish settlers. After the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the fort was in such bad shape, the Amercans built Fort Claiborne, as they could no longer use Baptiste. In 1979, a replica of the fort was rebuilt a few 100 yards from where the original fort stood. Fort St. Jean Baptiste currently sits at 155 Jefferson street and offers educational tours Wednesday through Sunday of each week.
Visit Melrose Plantation
Located just under thirty minutes from Natchitoches, sits the historic Melrose Plantation. Marie Therese Coincoin was born a slave in the household of Natchitoches’ founder Louis Juchereau de St. Denis. Eventually, Coincoin, which means “second born,” was purchased by Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, and they had a nineteen-year long relationship. Together they had ten children. Eventually Coincoin and her children would become wealthy through Spanish land grants, and in 1796, her son Louis Metoyer would build Melrose Plantation on the Cane River.
Through the centuries, the plantation changed ownership until Mrs. Cammie Henry became the owner following the death of husband John Hampton Henry. Under Mrs. Henry, Melrose became home to a host of artists and writers who could stay on the property, provided they stayed busy and creative. One of the country’s most famous folk artists was actually a paid cook and housekeeper who worked and resided at Melrose most of her life. She would keep and use discarded paint to create scenes from daily life on the plantation property, which continued as a thriving and working farm long after the Civil War and slavery had ended. A descendent of slaves, the famous painter was Clementine Hunter (1887-1988), and she treasured life and art at Melrose by capturing moments in time with a brush and her visions of life in the Cane River region.
In her lifetime, Hunter painted thousands of pictures, with several original works on display at Melrose. The plantation tour will take you through the various buildings and “big house,” as you stand among the grand branches of century oak trees, listening to stories about the life of Clementine and many other characters who graced the Melrose estate. In what is known as the “Africa House,” lay your eyes on several restored murals painted on simple sheets of plywood now lining the walls with a perfect representation of Clementine’s colorful and simplistic, yet authentically real style of painting. Having never formally learned to read or write, Ms. Hunter was so accomplished that Northwestern State University (Natchitoches) awarded her an honorary doctor of fine arts degree. Clementine died peacefully in her home at Melrose at the age of 101, with a paintbrush in her hand. Never having traveled more than a few miles from home in her lifetime, Clementine reached the entire world with her artful legacy. You can learn more about this artist and the history of Melrose by attending the upcoming 49th annual Melrose Arts and Crafts Festival on April 15th and 16th, 2023. Held bi-annually, this Festival also takes place in the Fall and will be held on October 14th and 15th of 2023. The Cane River National Heritage Area and Trail includes a number of other national historic landmarks, from the Oakland Plantation, to the Kate Chopin Home site and Chopin Plantation, the St. Augustine Catholic Church and Cemetery, and so much more.
Enter The Sportsman’s Paradise
To celebrate the many accomplishments and heritage of Louisiana sports and their most famous athletes, the 27,500-square-foot Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame opened in Natchitoches on June 28, 2013. Inductees must have either been born in Louisiana or have played for a Louisiana team. You can search for your favorite athletes in a database, but you won’t have to look hard to find some of the greatest names through the history of Louisiana sports. This hall of fame includes champions like football’s Archie Manning, Willis Reed, and Terry Bradshaw; baseball’s Ron Guidry; and basketball’s Pete Maravich, Kim Mulkey (now head coach of the LSU Women’s Basketball program), and Shaquille O’Neal. At the 2013 opening ceremony and induction, Shaquille reportedly declared the city to be nick-named “Shaq-itoches,” at least for that day. Among the top Hall of Fame college football memorabilia on display are Billy Cannon’s (LSU) 1959 Heisman trophy and tributes to two other fairly recent Heisman trophy winners Joe Burrow (LSU quarterback, 2019), and Amite City, Louisiana native DaVonta Smith (Alabama wide receiver, 2020). Outside of the greatest Louisiana players in the major sports, the Hall of Fame also includes those who have made a significant impact on other popular sports like hunting and fishing, inspiring the state license plate to state “Sportsman’s Paradise.” Connected to the Hall of Fame is the Northwest Louisiana History Museum, where you can learn about these lands first occupied by the Caddo, inhabited and established as a city by the French and later Spanish settlers. Exhibits cover every aspect of life in the Cane River Region, from politics to religion, the arts, and important economic anchors of agriculture and forestry.
While Christmas can be the most wonderful time of the year, you don’t have to wait that long for a reason to visit. Celebrate Natchitoches Mardi Gras now, with the upcoming Krewe of Dionysos 25th annual parade coming up soon on February 18, 2023, from 6-9 p.m. Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler (Let the Good Times Roll) in Natchitoches, where “history lives” and Louisiana culture “feeds your soul.”
Cover Photo Credit Brad Ferguson
A native of northwest Louisiana herself, Dana Maass was raised in the nearby city of Winnfield with cherished memories of attending the Natchitoches Christmas Festival. After attending LSU in Baton Rouge, graduating from Shreveport’s LSU Health Sciences Center, becoming an occupational therapist and later a Texan, Dana still bleeds purple and gold. Dana is married to Native Texan and Austinite Brian Maass, who enjoys capturing their travels from behind his camera lens. Dana and Brian live with their dog “Chester” in Round Rock, Texas, and they hope to see you in Natchitoches for the next Christmas on the Cane!