Christmas, 2012
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December 1-2, 2012
A Visit to Natchitoches


Our friends, Justin and Gary, have once again invited us to drive over to Natchitoches to stay with them for a weekend. This time, the occasion is the Christmas Parade and the fireworks display that opens the Festival of Lights- Natchitoches' Christmas season. We actually drove over on Friday afternoon to help the guys with some decorating, but since we didn't take any pictures that day, we'll just look at Saturday and Sunday.


Our Drive to Natchitoches

You have already seen a page or two relating to the trips that Fred and I have already made over to Natchitoches, so th eroute may be familiar to you.

Getting from Dallas to Natchitoches is pretty simple, involving about a 150-mile trip on I-20 from Dallas to Shreveport, and then about 100 miles south on I-49 to the exit for Natchitoches.

Once you get off I-49, then it is about four miles into the town of Natchitoches. To go directly to Justin and Gary's, one simply goes all the way into town and past the university to turn north on Jefferson- the street that runs along the west side of the Cane River and is the main street for the town. Their house is about six blocks from where you turn north; it is at the corner of Demeziere and Jefferson.

We arrived late in the afternoon, and after helping the guys with some outside decorating, we went to one of their favorite local places for dinner.

As I said, Fred and I have visited Justin and Gary here in Natchitoches a couple of times already. If you have not seen those pages, I would at least like to introduce you to Soldini House. I can do that by sending you to the website for their house- a website that I created for them after our visit Christmas a year ago. At that time, their house was part of a Home Tour of landmark houses in the town.

If you would like to learn more about this historic house, you should definitely visit that website. If you will click on the link below, I will open that web page in a separate window so you can have a look around:


A Bit of the History of the "Festival of Lights"

Natchitoches present-day Christmas Festival had very humble beginnings. In 1920, Max Burgdof came to Natchitoches to install the Fairbanks-Morse electricity generators purchased by the Power & Light Department. He did such a good job that he was persuaded to stay on as chief electrician. In 1926, Max thought that stringing Christmas lights along Front Street would be a nice Christmas present from the Power & Light Department to the citizens of his adopted town. He approached local businessmen with the idea and soon had enough donations to acquire a small supply of the newly-available 10-watt light bulbs.

While most residents liked the idea, some thought it a waste of public money (since the P&L employees strung the lights). They were overruled, and over the next decade the lights were greatly extended. The town continued to use the inexpensive small bulbs, even though funding increased and even though the bulbs had to be dipped in dye each year to keep their color from fading. Luckily, bulbs with interior frosting became available and made this job obsolete.

To complement the lights, Burgdof built the first set piece, an 8 foot tall Christmas Star, which has since been remodeled into a piece 21 feet across. After launching the lights, Max Burgdof would go on to become a local ice-manufacturing baron and Charles Solomon, his succesor as chief electrician, picked up the “torch” of the Christmas lights. Today, he is probably the individual most identified with the lights. Mr. Solomon and co-worker Charles Maggio built over 40 set pieces from either their own or submitted designs. The Festival actually began when people began to gather downtown on the first night the lights were turned on. This informal event eventually evolved into a full-fledged festival, the Festival of Lights, which was a big hit. People from all over the region started coming to Natchitoches on the first Saturday in December.


Getting Soldini House Ready

Fred and I were not the only invitees to Soldini House for this event; actually, all five of the bedrooms were full. I should have recorded who was there; other than Fred and myself and someone Justin and Gary knew through work, they were all relatives. You'll see some of them in the pictures this weekend.

Soldini House (Just Prior to the Parade)

Early Saturday morning, we arose to help with the decorating. Once before, Gary had Fred and I work on the decorations around the upstairs windows (which you can see in the picture at left). This morning, we helped Justin hang the garlands, and then we polished them off while he worked downstairs. There are clickable thumbnails below for some of the pictures we took while we were on the roof:

From the roof, we could look down onto Jefferson Street where the parade would pass by in a few hours. There wasn't anybody taking up positions yet, although the bed & breakfast across the street had put out a few chairs for guests. The parade would begin just a block down the street to the right in that picture; it was to start about noon.

Before that, and after helping Justin and Gary with some of the front porch decorations, we took a walk around the neighborhood. Justin had ordered some meat pies from the grocery out on the highway, and we had to pick them up about 11AM.

If you've seen any of the album pages for our prior visits here, you have seen almost the entire inside of the house (or you can take a tour at the Soldini House website), so I won't repeat a lot of those pictures here. Fred did take a few interesting interior shots, especially of the kitchen, which was beginning to fill up as Justin's relatives and friends arrived with covered dishes and such. I have put clickable thumbnails below for some of these pictures:

I sat down on the porch after the wreaths were hung to await my next assignment. Justin was getting of his guests settled, and Fred went off to wander around the grounds for a few minutes. He got a nice picture of the new fountain that Gary installed a year ago, and then walked around, taking pictures of the plants he found interesting. There are clickable thumbnails below if you would like to see some of the flowers and plants that Justin and Gary cultivate around Soldini House:


The Neighborhood Before the Parade

Justin wanted Fred and I to go with him to pick up the meat pies and some other stuff at the grocery about ten-thirty, so since we had a bit of time before then, Fred and I walked towards town a few blocks to see what we could see.

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In Front of the Steel Magnolia House

The Steel Magnolia House B&B is just a block away from Soldini House towards downtown; that is where Fred and I stayed two years ago, again at Christmas time. That's the house that was used for filming Sally Field's house in the movie "Steel Magnolias." In front, I found that people were beginning to stake out spots for the parade, and I made the movie that you can watch with the player at left.

We only had time to walk a short distance before we had to be back, but we did get some interesting pictures. You can use the clickable thumbnails below to have a look at them:

Although it's not part of this trip, if you have not already seen the album page froms December 11th and 12th, 2010- the visit where we stayed in Steel Magnolia House- I think you should really see them. I was able to take pictures inside the house and juxtapose them with clips from the movie that were shot in the same places. On those pages, you'll also see the appearance of Soldini House in the movie's opening credits. If you would like to pause here and visit those pages, you can use the links below.

On the page for December 11th, maximize the window and then use the page index to go to "At Steel Magnolia House" for an introductory movie, go to "At the American Cemetery" for a clip from the movie that was filmed there, and look at the beginning of "The Soldini House Tour" to see the opening credits clip. When you have finished with the page, just close it to return here. The link for this page is below:

December 11, 2010

On the page for December 12th, maximize the window and then use the page index to go to "A Tour of the Steel Magnolia House" for a complete tour of the house, including a number of clips from the movie that match the rooms we toured. When you have finished with the page, just close it to return here. The link for this page is below:

December 12, 2010

We returned to Soldini House and headed off to the store with Justin. He wanted me to make the same green bean casserole that he's had at my house, so we got the fixings for that, the meat pies that he had ordered, and a bunch of other stuff and then headed back to his house. We were surprised to find that in our absence, the streets leading to his house had been closed an hour ahead of the parade. We tried a number of different routes to get there, but all were blocked off, and no amount of cajoling seemed to be able to get us through. I'd been checking my phone map, and pointed out a street we could take that wasn't blocked off- but it was one-way coming away from his house. It was a typical residential neighborhood street, and I advised that we go the wrong way on it to get home. There were no police around and it was our only option, so we took it. Fortunately, we did not meet anyone in the three blocks we traveled coming our way; the neighborhood's residents were already situated for the parade, I guess. We did pass a few people surprised to see us going the wrong way, but we made it without incident.


The Natchitoches Christmas Parade

Along with the Christmas lights, one of the biggest crowd pleasers of the modern Festival are the parades. The “adult” parade, held in the early afternoon, came about as a way to attract people to town earlier in the day so that the merchants could benefit from their patronage. Prior to the introduction of the parade, the Festival consisted of some church sponsored activities, perhaps a short patriotic program, then the turning on of the lights. Northwestern State often had a football game in the early afternoon, which gave people something to do until dark, but took them away from the downtown merchants. For several years, Festival-goers would have to choose between the game and the parade. Gradually, the parade won. Actually, the afternoon parade became so popular, that the Festival quickly added a lighted-barge parade on the Cane as well as a children's parade earlier in the day.

There is something about a parade in a small town that's interesting- particularly when every high school, dance studio, civic organization and club gets involved. I don't know from how far around Natchitoches the bands, beauty queens and dance groups came, but it had to be a pretty big area.

Fred took all of his movies and pictures from the front porch of Soldini House. With the lines of people along the street right in front of the house, this usually meant that one couldn't see much below the heads and shoulders of the marching units. Even so, he got some decent movies of some of the marching bands. I've selected a few of his movies that you can watch with the players below:

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One of the First Marching Bands

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Marching Band (Part 1)
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Marching Band (Part 2)

I, too, began taking pictures and movies from a position right down by the street. Unlike Fred, though, I went to the edge of the street where I could look towards the beginning of the parade route and, with no people in the way, get a pretty good view. I took two movies from this position (one of them the same band that Fred captured in his second and third movies above), and you can look at them with the players below:

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A Motorcycle Contingent Opens the Parade
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One of the First Marching Bands

I also started taking still pictures from my position, and you can use the clickable thumbnails below to look at some of them:

One problem with my vantage point was immediately apparent- sometimes people get in the way of my shots, particularly when I have to take a bit of time to compose them. Another problem was more subtle. Since I was so close to the action, I could not get much of it in; about the only way to get a whole unit in one picture was to look at it while it was still coming towards me. But doing that meant I would lose a lot of the detail that make a picture worthwhile.

So I figured that I had to get back from the street. Since Fred was already taking pictures from the porch, I decided to go up to the second floor and out onto the roof over the porch- the same place where we'd hung decorations earlier. I missed a bit of the parade on my way up there, but once there I had a birds-eye view of everything. I could zoom in when I wanted to, but I usually let Fred take care of that. The rest of my movies and pictures were taken from the roof. Take a look at my first to movies from the roof, for example, and you'll see the difference the high perch makes:

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A Girl's Dance Troupe
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A High-School Marching Band

Parades are parades, I guess. If you have seen one, you have seen quite a few of them. And I suppose the Natchitoches Festival of Lights Parade was no exception. It seemed very typical of a small town, so I suppose the best I can do here is just include some representative pictures and movies to give you the feeling that you'd seen a lot of it. For example, here are a couple more movies I took:

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The Meat Pie Festival Queen
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Vicki's Dancers (A Local Dance School?)

Not all the parade pictures were worthwhile, but some were interesting for one reason or another.

For example, in the picture at left, I have no idea what the policeman was looking at, but his expression is priceless- perhaps a "wardrobe malfunction"?

There are clickable thumbnails below you can use to see some of Fred's parade pictures:

You can use the movie players below to watch a couple of different dance troupes:

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From the rooftop, I got very good views of most of the units in the parade, and I tried to record as many as I could.

At right is one of the many marching bands; this one paused (as many seemed to do) right in front of Soldini House.

Use the clickable thumbnails below to have a look at more of the parade units- politicians, beauty queens, dancers and bands:

As you can see, my vantage point was a really good one.

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I thought I would try to film one marching band and its majorettes from start to finish; you can use the movie player at left to have a look and a listen.

And below are clickable thumbnails for more of the parade units:

There are clickable thumbnails below for more of Fred's close-up shots of the parade- including Santa:

Let's go back up on the roof for more views of the parade.

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I made a movie of what I think was a unit of Shriners; a good number of them were driving little miniature trucks and cars, and you can have a look at that movie with the player at right.

And below are clickable thumbnails for more of the parade units:

The parade had been going for over 90 minutes already, and it was supposed to be about two hours long. Where they stacked up all the units at the beginning is anyone's guess, but perhaps that's why so many streets were closed. I suspect that the had them across the bridge to the east; there are lots of long, wide streets over on that side of the Cane River they could have used.

Many of the units that had people on or in them were tossing candy out to the spectators; where that got started I have no idea, but it seems pretty common these days. Anyway, one commercial entry came by tossing advertising-laden frisbees out.

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I got the attention of one of the people on the float to toss one up to me, but he missed and it went into the palm tree at the corner of Soldini House. You can see this happen in my movie; use the player at left to watch it.

And below are clickable thumbnails for the last of the parade units:

I must admit, I always find it a bit odd that there are Confederate-themed entries in parades these days; particularly when there are so many black folks in the crowds. You can see some of this in the last set of thumbnails.

That brought the parade to an end; it was a lot of fun to watch, and all of Justin and Gary's guests enjoyed it. I'd cooked the casserole early in the day so it was in the oven, and with what the guests brought and what Justin bought, there was plenty of food all through the afternoon.

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After the parade was over, I kept hearing someone making some sort of announcement on a loudspeaker- over and over and over again. I decided to walk off to see if I could find out what it was. Turned out it was coming from a police car parked a block south of Soldini House right in the middle of the intersection of Jefferson and the street leading east across the river. "What we have here is a failure to communicate," I couldn't help but thinking as I filmed a bit of the action. Have a listen with the movie player at left.

Fred got one picture (albeit a bit fuzzy) of Justin and Gary's upside-down Christmas tree (you should research the history of that) in the living room, and I snapped a picture of Justin and his uncle on the porch. And below are a few clickable thumbnails for some of Fred's last pictures of the afternoon:


The Festival of Lights Fireworks Display

It was in the late 1930s that the Festival first featured fireworks, although the exact starting year is a matter of debate. One story has it in 1936, when a couple of locals were discussing how the Festival could be jazzed up. They hit on the idea of fireworks, and raised $300 from local businessmen. Two of those businessmen, John Cunningham and A.C. Massingill, took the money down to New Orleans both buy the rockets and learn how to shoot them off. While this is the most widely known story of how the Festival got its fireworks, another version has Cunningham and Massingill coming up with the idea themselves in 1939- the 225th anniversary of the founding of Natchitoches. Fortuituously, there was a $400 surplus in the lighting budget that Cunningham and Massingill used to buy fireworks. The rest is history. No matter how they got started, the fireworks were an immediate hit. Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Massingill would continue to shoot off the fireworks until John Cunningham was killed in World War II. Every year, more money was raised for the fireworks (until a couple of years ago, the money was raised using roadblocks for voluntary donations or charging a voluntary admission fee to downtown), and the fireworks have continued to evolve into the incredible display we see today. Some years ago, so much money was being raised that the display was "doubled." There are now two simultaneous displays going off across the Cane River from downtown.

Justin and Gary have friends who run the bed and breakfast across the street, which back up to the Cane River, and they have invited all of us to come over after dark to watch the fireworks from their dock and back lawn. They came over for some supper and we followed them back to watch the fireworks (and to have a tour of the B&B, which is quite nice).

We learned some time ago that taking pictures of fireworks, especially from a distance and with amateur cameras such as ours, is tricky at best. Very few of such pictures turn out well. Of the fifty or so pictures that Fred took (mine were totally useless), only eight are even passable; there are clickable thumbnails for these below:

Fred's movies turned out better, although you have undoubtedly seen fireworks movies before. His first movie, a very long one, is the first six or seven minutes of the show. The second is the last three minutes- including the finale. You can watch these with the players below:

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The First Part of the Fireworks Show
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The Fireworks Show Finale


The Festival of Lights

Right at the end of the fireworks show, the switch turning on the displays of lights downtown is thrown. We could not see them very well from where we were, so after we left the B&B, Fred and I walked downtown to have a look at them. We've seen them before, but will go ahead and show you some pictures we took of them tonight.

Our Walk to See the Christmas Lights

The lights are set up on the east side of Cane River Lake north and south of the bridge at Church Street- which is itself lit up in shades of blue and purple.

A little ways north of the Church Street bridge, in the area used for the Easter Egg Hunt in "Steel Magnolias," there is a large Christmas Tree set up, and you can see a picture of it at left. And below are clickable thumbnails for pictures we took of the Christmas displays here along Cane River Lake:

While we were downtown, we happened to walk by some of the store windows which, as you would expect, were decorated for Christmas. A couple of them were very interesting, and you can see them here and here.

Before we went back, I made two movies of the Christmas Lights from either side of the Church Street bridge to try to get them all in. You can watch these movies with the players below:

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Looking at the Christmas Lights was the last thing we did that we photographed. We went back to Soldini House for dessert and conversation with Justin and Gary's relatives and friends. We stayed the night and helped them get things cleaned up the next day, leaving a couple of hours ahead of Justin and Gary to return home to Dallas.

The Christmas Festival in Natchitoches is always special, and we were happy to see it again this year.

You can use the links below to continue to another photo album page.

Christmas, 2012
November 22, 2012: Thanksgiving
Return to the Index for 2012