A Cajun Christmas

Holidays are a Special Time to Explore New Orleans

By: Chere Dastugue Coen

It's easy to take a trip back in time when visiting Cajun Country, the 19 parishes in southwestern Louisiana. At Christmastime, the pleasure grows tenfold, as bonfires glow on the levees and 19th century towns are decorated with lights.

To fully appreciate “Acadiana” at Christmastime, it requires at least one night’s stay outside New Orleans. But it’s worth the two- to three-hour trip west on Interstate 10, and there are plenty of sites to witness along the way.

Clients should start with the Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, a collection of 20 buildings representing the typical working aspects of 19th century plantation life.

The rugged buildings, which include an overseer’s house, rural church, schoolhouse and pioneer’s cabin, among others, are elaborately decorated in Victorian style for the holidays.

The annual Rural Life Christmas, a day of period theme events ranging from 19th century dance lessons by guides in hoop skirts to a roaring bonfire with Papa Noel, will be Sat., Dec. 7. The museum is open daily 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Also en route are the enormous Christmas bonfires along the Mississippi levees.

The French tradition of lighting the way for Papa Noel (folks were concerned he might miss them in the swamps) continues annually on Christmas Eve in the “river parishes” above New Orleans and along Interstate 10. However, St. James Parish offers a Festival of the Bonfires earlier in the month, featuring crafts, food, live music and the lighting of the bonfires nightly at 7.

A good place to lay one’s head and plan one’s further itinerary is Lafayette, known as the heart of Cajun Country. Within the city limits are two re-created historical Cajun towns featuring authentic 18th- and 19th-century structures Vermilionville and Acadian Village. Both offer special holiday decorations.

Vermilion features a candlelit trail, Festival of Trees and traditional Christmas Reveillon menus in its restaurant, while Acadian Village covers its historical buildings and grounds with thousands of twinkling lights and features live Cajun music, local cuisine and arts and crafts nightly.

Special events in Lafayette include the 10th anniversary of the Festival of Light, a holiday fete, Dec. 5 from 5 to 10 p.m. at the Oil Center; and the ArtWalk on Dec. 13 from 6 to 8 p.m. in decorated downtown Lafayette. (Papa Noel visits San Souci Fine Crafts Gallery from 2 to 8 p.m.)

The Children’s Museum of Acadiana in Lafayette hosts its annual New Year’s at Noon and Carnival Countdown (since Christmas also signals the advent of the Carnival season on Jan. 6) on Dec. 31 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Victorian seasonal floral decorations will enhance the Alexandre Mouton House-Lafayette Museum, a 19th century home belonging to the state’s first Democratic governor, daily from Dec. 3 to 30.

Nearby stands St. John Cathedral, which offers lessons, choral presentations and readings and carols at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14.

And for a taste of Mardi Gras with a Christmas theme, the Lafayette Christmas Parade, an annual tradition for more than 50 years, will be Dec. 7. As is the tradition with all Louisiana parades, be ready to catch the beads and trinkets.

Surrounding Cajun towns offer their tribute to Christmas as well.

On Dec. 14, St. Martinville enjoys its annual St. Lucy Festival of Lights, a tribute to St. Lucy, the Catholic patron saint of those with eye disorders. From 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., St. Martin Church Square and its historic St. Martin de Tours Church, where mass is still said in French, will be transformed into a winter wonderland of white lights and angels.

A parade will roll down Main Street and there will be food, arts and crafts and children’s games. While in St. Martinville, clients should be sure to visit the Acadian Memorial, a mural and monument to the people exiled from Nova Scotia who found refuge in Louisiana and who would later become the Cajuns.

Historic Abbeville, about 30 minutes south of Lafayette, illuminates its downtown buildings and majestic oaks with lights every evening from Dec. 1 to Jan. 2 in its spectacular Les Lumieres du Village d’Abbeville. Tell clients to sample some excellent Cajun cooking in the town’s many fine restaurants.

For something a little different, Breaux Bridge, east of Lafayette, features a Cajun Christmas Bayou Parade with lighted floats along the meandering Bayou Teche Nov. 28 and 29. Music, fireworks display and more will be featured in the town’s Parc des Ponts de Pont Breaux.