Natchitoches is typically known as a small and quiet town of around 18,000 people. During Christmas Fest, however, this changes. According to the Natchitoches Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival is one of the nation’s oldest holiday festivals, a fitting title for one of the nation’s oldest towns.
Christmas Fest has been consistently ranked among the best in the country by Yahoo, the American Bus Association and The Southeast Tourism Society, among others.
The festival, which is the biggest annual event in Natchitoches, brings in roughly 26,000 people on parade day — and that’s only including people who purchase an armband to go downtown. The number does not include people outside the gated area which Festival Director Lee Waskom estimates is around 15,000.
Roughly 350,000 people come to view the lights during the rest of the holiday season.
The town boasts over 300,000 lights and set pieces on the riverbank. 2017 will mark the 91st annual festival and will feature recurring events such as the weekly fireworks shows and the parade. However, festivalgoers will notice a few changes this year.
Since summer 2016, construction on the riverbank has left the area closed to the public. According to Festival and Events Director Jill Leo, the $4 million project was recently completed – just in time for the 2017 festival.
“We’re so excited to take advantage of all the new amenities including the Santa House, amphitheatre, stage and especially the ramps,” Leo says.
The only feature that remains incomplete is the new bathrooms, which won’t be complete until after the festival. In the meantime, bathrooms by Beau Jardin on the north end of the riverbank will remain open.
Leo looks at this year’s festival as an opportunity for a fresh start after the cancellation of last year’s parade due to inclement weather.
“The new riverbank is already opening up so many opportunities that we couldn’t have had in the past,” she says, highlighting an upcoming performance by NSU Middle Lab School and Natchitoches Central High School Dec. 14. “This is the kind of activity we want to see more of.”
According to Leo, the biggest complaint received on the construction is that the money should have been used to repair city roads. The project, funded by the Cane River Waterway Commission, could not have gone toward the roads because it was received via a grant specifically for the riverfront.
Another complaint is the price to get onto Front Street on Festival Day: $10 for adults. Senior liberal arts major Lindsay Blair would like to see this cost change.
“For the price, they should have more than just food and vendors,” she says. “But I can’t be too upset, because they’ve done a lot to the Riverbank this year, and I think the new construction will add another element to historic Front Street.”
Luckily for those strapped for cash, the parade can be seen from outside the gated area on Jefferson or Second Street. Armbands are also not needed on most other nights, excluding Saturday nights and Festival night.
The festivities are not limited to festival day either. Throughout the rest of the season, events such as concerts, craft shows, historic house tours and the NSU Christmas Gala are held, marking an entire month of holiday fun.
“I get so many phone calls from families about how the festival brings them together,” Leo says. “Grandparents, for example, have said they get to come back with their grandkids to the place they remember from their childhood.
“I’ve even had some young adults that have said they’re bringing back a parent or grandparent for one last Christmas Festival. The music and the fireworks are great, but that togetherness is what this is all about.”
A full schedule is available at natchitocheschristmas.com