Festival sheds some light on region's Christmas past

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Fireworks, twinkling lights, live music and, of course, Santa Claus are but some of the ways the Louisiana town of Natchitoches chooses to celebrate the holiday season. This is no ordinary get-together; the town employs more than 300,000 brightly colored lights and 77 huge set pieces for the annual Festival of Lights, which has been illuminating the northwest Louisiana town since 1927.

Each year at this time, more than 150,000 visitors flock to Natchitoches (pronounced "Nack-a-tish"), one of six cities on the Louisiana-Texas border that participate as stops along the annual Holiday Trail of Lights.

Besides Natchitoches, there's the sister cities of Shreveport and Bossier City in Louisiana as well as Marshall, Kilgore and Jefferson in the Lone Star State.

Although mammoth revelry holds a certain appeal, for many people the celebration is an opportunity to experience the family-friendly charm and elegance of days gone by.

Indeed, what better way to showcase a town's history and traditions, I thought to myself recently while on a Christmas light tour of the city.

Sister acts  

Despite the presence of riverboat casinos that helped revive the Red River cities in the 1980s, the tone in Shreveport and Bossier City is family-friendly.

Kids get a blast from the Sci-Port Discovery Center and Imax Dome Theatre. For little ballerinas there's the Moscow Ballet's "Great Russian Nutcracker" at the Strand Theatre. Fireworks festivals at Riverview and Earl Williamson Parks feature light sculptures, food, music and games.

As part of the festivities, most downtown buildings are illuminated with sparkling lights, and for those wishing to venture out into historical neighborhoods there's the Highland-Fairfield District.

A town time forgot

Cocooned deep within the Piney Woods of east Texas, Jefferson is a formerly bustling riverboat town whose golden era from the 1850s to the 1870s came to an abrupt end when, in 1873, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew up the natural log jam on the Red River south of Shreveport, causing the water level at Jefferson to fall dangerously low.

What remains today are the large and opulent Greek Revival and antebellum homes of Jefferson's elite, four of which are included in a special December candlelight tour featuring Victorian era-themed Christmas decorations such as all-natural red cedar garlands festooned with red ribbons and lace.

Another popular attraction is the Rail of Lights Christmas Train, an old-fashioned steam train ride that passes through a wooded bayou landscape adorned with more than 75,000 holiday lights.

Take a mule-drawn wagon tour of town and don't miss the Excelsior House, a hotel that was built in 1844 by Captain William Perry, who brought the first steamboat to Jefferson.

Famous guests have included Ulysses S. Grant, Oscar Wilde and Steven Spielberg, who reportedly became spooked by a voice he heard in his room during the night and promptly left.

Jefferson is reported to be one of the most haunted small towns in Texas, just one more aspect of a sleepy Southern town brimming with colorful folklore.

Derrick the halls

In Kilgore, instead of a bunch of colorful lights you get silvery stars atop oil derricks with their spindly, towerlike frameworks serving as symbolic podiums for everything that has made this city, population 11,753, what it is today.

"Most farmers were dirt-poor but happy," intones the narrator of a half-hour movie at the East Texas Oil Museum, recounting the Depression-era booming oil exploration that transformed "poor-boy cotton farmers into high-rolling oil barons."

The museum, which receives more than 1 million visitors a year, offers a glimpse into the forces that shaped the region's character and should not be missed.

Kilgore is also known for its world-famous Rangerettes, the first-ever all-women dance and drill team, whose history and traditions are on display at the Rangerette Showcase Museum.

Oozing with warm-hearted Texas affability and wearing cowboy hats and short skirts, these fresh-faced ladies from Kilgore College won me over with their winning smiles, impossibly high leg kicks and spirited jump splits.

Wonderland of lights

Launched in 1987 after a small editorial appeared in the Marshall News Messenger imploring residents to put the spirit of Christmas back into the holiday season, today Marshall's Wonderland of Lights is perhaps the largest of all Christmas light festivals in Texas, with more than 10 million lights throughout the community.

At its center is the Historical Harrison County Courthouse, which is outfitted with over 125,000 tiny, white lights and located in the center of the Downtown Square.

From Nov. 22 through Dec. 31, this Rockwellian town transforms itself into a pulsating light display with such one-of-a-kind depictions of Santa waiving from his train to gigantic gingerbread houses, 20-foot tall poinsettias and a replica of the North Pole replete with penguins and an ice skating rink.

Cities featured in the Holiday Trail of Lights are no more than an hour's drive from Shreveport-Bossier City along Routes 20 and 49.

For more information on times and locations, please visit www.holidaytrailoflights.com or call (888) 45-VISIT.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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