Louisiana & Texas: Dreaming Of A White Christmas
(Story previously published in Canstar weeklies)
Canadians might cringe at the sight of falling snow, but in other parts of the continent they’re dreaming of a white Christmas – for real!
In Marshall, Texas, the last time they had snow on the ground Christmas Day was in 1986. It brought joy to their world, with children and adults alike rushing outside to make tiny little snowmen before it all melted away. Even though the wintry scene was short-lived, the memories were long-lasting, and the seeds were planted to start celebrating the season in a much bigger way.
Today, even without the white stuff, and despite green landscape as far as the eye can see, the south knows how to roll out the red carpet come Christmas time. Texas and Louisiana have teamed up annually for more than a decade to feature the Holiday Trail of Lights tour, with six cities in two states hosting themed activities. Events officially kick off at Thanksgiving and run into the New Year, offering loads of good will and Christmas cheer throughout the region.
SHREVEPORT-BOSSIER CITY, LOUISIANA
The Holiday Trail of Lights begins with a bang in Shreveport and Bossier City, two Louisiana metropolises separated by their own version of the Red River. They co-host a flurry of fireworks synchronized to music on the first Saturday night in December.
Billed the largest fireworks display in the state, Rockets Over the Red blankets Shreveport’s RiverView Park and Bossier City’s Louisiana Boardwalk. This kilometre-long outdoor shopping mall offers 60 shops, 20 eateries, cinema, and nightlife district. For lovers of the stage, the Nutcracker is performed annually at RiverView Hall by Shreveport’s Metropolitan Ballet.
For a taste of historic Shreveport at any time of year, visit Fertitta’s Delicatessen. What started as a ‘mom and pop’ Italian-owned grocery store in 1927 became the first imported foods store in the city, first catering service, and introduced the world to the now famous Muffy sandwich in 1960. Today, the locale is run by Agatha, the only daughter of store founder Papa Sam Fertitta. It is also the first and only family-owned restaurant in the state of Louisiana on the National Registry of History Places.
Just outside Shreveport-Bossier City you’ll find the American Rose Centre, and 118 acres boasting the most beautiful array of flora in a serene forest setting. Headquarters for the American Rose Society, more than 20,000 roses are bedded in 60 individual gardens – creating the nation’s largest rose park, and laying the foundation for an exceptional holiday experience.
Christmas at Roseland presents four million twinkling lights in various displays, and features dozens of giant wooden holiday cards made by local students. With hot apple cider in hand, starry sky overhead, and the sweet sounds of Canadian crooner Anne Murray’s White Christmas drifting in the frosty air, it almost felt like home to this carol-loving Canuck. Except for the fact we were riding around in an open golf cart in December, with no snow on the ground.
The next stop on the Holiday of Lights tour is Natchitoches, Louisiana’s oldest permanent settlement, and the place with the weirdest pronunciation. How they get ‘nack-a-tish’ out of that spelling is beyond me, but it probably dates back even further than 1714, the year this French colony was founded. At that time it had two purposes: to establish trade with the Spanish in Texas, and deter Spanish advances into Louisiana.
Today Natchitoches retains its European flavour through architecture, heritage, lifestyle and tradition, as famously featured in the movie Steel Magnolias, and coming alive during the holidays. The Festival of Lights and 83rd Annual Christmas Festival dole out 45 days of celebrations, drawing more than 500,000 visitors annually for their parade, entertainment, food fairs, craft shows, and fireworks.
The Holiday Tour of Homes offers fascinating glimpses into the locales and lives of local residents, and we happened to tour the most stunning home I’ve ever stepped foot in. Called Secret Garden, it was originally built in 1924, and is the last surviving handcrafted Dutch Colonial residence in northwest Louisiana. Having fallen into the hands of a ‘hoarder’ and overrun by rats and filth for decades, it took the current owners seven full years to restore it to its original glory. And their restoration efforts didn’t go unrewarded.
While ripping out walls, doors, and just about everything else, they discovered two secret rooms loaded with artwork. They managed to salvage more than 100 pieces of original art, most of it now on display throughout the home, and adding to the charm and mystique of this remarkable riverside residence.
To put us in the holiday spirit, they let us help decorate one of the 17 indoor Christmas trees inside. They also treated us to a steaming hot cup of homemade wassail, equally delicious without or with a shot of applejack brandy.
With the taste of wassail lingering on our lips, and visions of oil wells dancing in our heads, it was time for Texas. Kilgore, that is. The centre of the East Texas oil boom in 1930, Kilgore’s population grew from 800 to 8000 practically overnight, as fortune seekers from around the world came looking to secure their share of the black gold.
At one time, Kilgore boasted 1200 oil derricks within the town site, the densest concentration of oil derricks in the world, earning the title of the World’s Richest Acre. Today, more than 80 derricks still dot the Kilgore skyline, topped with twinkling stars, and decorated during holiday season.
The East Texas Oil Museum provides a captivating account of the oil boom. Using dioramas, movies, presentations, puppet shows, and a multitude of antiques, you’ll discover an authentic recreation of what life in Kilgore was like in the early 1930’s.
Down the street is the Kilgore College Rangerettes museum, a tribute to the first precision dance and drill team in the US. In 1940 their role was twofold: to attract young women to college, and keep people in their seats during football game halftimes. The squad was made up of beautiful college girls dressed in distinct outfits of white hats, red tops, and blue skirts that rested above the knee and were considered risqué at the time. Over the next 70 years the Rangerettes would become internationally renowned, while pioneering their craft across the nation.
The best thing about Christmas in Kilgore is definitely the Mt. Kilgore Snow Hill and Winterfest. For one highly anticipated weekend in December, the town guarantees a real snow hill. They bring in a team of snowmaking professionals from Colorado, who spend hours shaving gigantic blocks of ice so more than 3000 people can experience downhill tubing on a real snow hill. The fun begins Friday night and runs through to Saturday afternoon. After that, they hose it all down and the snow hill is gone. Holiday activities continue all weekend, though, with carriage rides, entertainment, and a visit from good old Santa in his sleigh. Sans snow.
Over in Marshall, Texas, they trump downhill tubing with real live ice skating. Since 1987 – the year following their last ‘white’ Christmas – Marshall has featured a holiday extravaganza throughout December called Wonderland of Lights.
Known as the ‘Granddaddy of Texas Lighting Festivals’, the official lighting ceremony sparks more than 10 million lights all over the community, including the Historic Harrison County Courthouse located in the centre of the downtown square. This crown jewel of the festival is decorated with more than 125,000 tiny white lights and truly evokes the image of winter wonderland, even without snow.
Just outside the courthouse is the pride and joy of Marshall’s winter festival: an actual outdoor skating rink. They build it using a little holiday magic, combined with a system of coils, sand, water, and freezing agents. It operates for six full weeks, providing the free use of skates with the $10 admission. Skaters enjoy 1.5 hours of uninterrupted skating in between 30-minute periods of mandatory maintenance required to groom the ice.
Another Marshall attraction during Christmas season is the Windows of Wonderland decorating challenge put forth by local retailer Charley and Bella’s. Businesses in the downtown area are asked to adorn their windows with unique displays following themes like old-fashioned Christmas, holiday elegance, humourous Christmas, and Texas Christmas. While prizes are awarded for each category, the best prize of all is strolling the streets under a sparkling sea of Christmas lights, with steaming hot coffee in hand, searching for the dozens of delightful entries.
The jewel of historic Texas towns has to be Jefferson, conceived as a port city due to water access all the way to New Orleans. After the arrival of the first steamboat in 1845, Jefferson became a boomtown where pioneers would first set foot on Texas soil. Today, Jefferson’s number one industry is tourism, and it’s often the first stop by visitors coming from Louisiana, arriving in droves to experience the charm and elegance of eras gone by.
One of the primary holiday attractions is an old-fashioned steam train. Departing at twilight, the Rail of Lights Christmas Train travels through woods and bayous, featuring five miles of awesome lights and displays. Passengers listen to legends and lore, enjoy hot chocolate, sing carols, and soak up the spirit of the season. Sans applejack brandy.
Jefferson Mule Drawn Wagon Tours is a family-owned fourth generation venture that gives a view of the town aboard a covered wagon pulled by mules. These animals were so well mannered they actually stopped at the two traffic lights. En route you’ll pass 35 historic homes, and learn more tidbits and tales about Jefferson.
I was most interested in learning about our mules, Pat and Adabelle, and dared to get close for a photo op. In the process I discovered that Pat couldn’t care less about tourists, while Adabelle liked to nuzzle in close, caring perhaps a little too much.
While exploring the town, stop in for lunch at Joseph’s Riverport Barbecue, where you’ll taste some of the best authentic Texas barbeque in the region. I’ll also make claim that Glory Dayz restaurant serves up the best peach cobbler in the world.
Stepping through the front door at Jefferson General Store is a step back in time, with old fashioned soda fountain, juke box that costs a nickel, and an array of goods, gifts, and goodies to browse and buy. My shopping selections included a jar of yummy mayhaw jelly, and dark chocolate drenched in Texas bourbon – both wonderful choices when it comes to treats.
But when it comes to imbibing, applejack brandy is still number one in my wassail – bottoms up! And even though there’s no snow to be found on the ground, Louisiana and Texas still get my vote for best Christmas experience outside of Canada.
THE SECRET GARDEN’S WASSAIL:
Applejack brandy (optional)