It's winter, and shorter days give way to longer nights across the Crescent City. However, the winter nights of New Orleans are home to one of the most fantastical displays of light in the country. There are lots of places to see Christmas lights in New Orleans, but Celebration in the Oaks is one of the best.
History of Celebration in the Oaks
Celebration in the Oaks, in City Park, is the premiere holiday event of the New Orleans area and nothing short of a technical marvel to bring cheer to locals and visitors alike. Boasting more than a million individual LED lights in over a thousand unique display fixtures, Celebration in the Oaks is a decades-old New Orleans holiday tradition.
Celebration in the Oaks, much like its namesake trees, has a long history of growth. Almost 40 years ago in the mid-1980s, the director of City Park's Botanical Garden, Paul Soniat, organized a small fundraiser for the gardens entitled "A Tribute to a Christmas Tree." After the involvement of New Orleans artists including decorated Christmas trees in a tent in the botanical garden, the event proved successful in bolstering holiday spirit. Three years later, the annual celebration earned the sponsorship of New Orleans Public Inc. to expand further into City Park.
By 1991, the newly-named "Celebration in the Oaks" was becoming a larger and larger event that entertained locals and began to attract visitors. Now, Celebration in the Oaks has grown into one of City Park's biggest events, as well as one of the most recognizable holiday events in the State of Louisiana.
Christmas in the Oaks Brilliance
Getting over one million LED lights into place for the celebration is an elaborate process that takes time, planning, and a lot of work. The planning for Celebration in the Oaks is a year-round process, and the end of one year's season coincides almost immediately with planning for the next year's.
To this day, much of the planning process is still overseen by Paul Soniat, who also offered considerable input on expansions to the in-garden walking tour this year. In addition to everything, Soniat has still found the time to hold musical performances in the garden's autumn Thursday night concert series.
Along with the elaborate light displays in the driving tour, the location of Celebration in the Oaks' walking tour in the City Park Botanical Garden is absolutely essential to the holiday atmosphere. A miniature train runs through a ceramic tunnel, passing through a village of lit houses and landmarks based around iconic historical New Orleans neighborhoods. While paying tribute to the many rail lines that helped to industrialize New Orleans in the past, the holiday lighting is on full display with the miniatures, as well as the larger train that is available for rides around the landmarks of City Park.
Other seasonal hallmarks include lighting at the Japanese garden and the striking red poinsettia tree in the Pavilion of the Two Sisters, located directly between the two long-standing ecosystem exhibits on ancient Louisiana life and the ecology of the rainforest. The red poinsettia tree is another of Soniat's ideas. Making its first appearance in 2003, he joked, "I just thought it looked good."
In addition to their holiday cheer, many of these year-round exhibits also contain secret trivia for New Orleans history buffs. The train garden includes a detailed miniature replica of the Milneburg Smoky Mary train, which took passengers to the site of the former Pontchartrain Beach amusement park and is also idolized to this day as one of the recurring event floats of the Krewe of Orpheus parade.
Likewise, the Japanese garden features a quotation by Lafcadio Hearn, the 19th-century anthropological writer who popularized both New Orleans' and Japan's uniqueness in the American imagination.
One of the most impressive sights to see at Celebration in the Oaks is always the narrated display of the legendary Louisiana children's book The Cajun Night Before Christmas. First published almost 50 years ago in 1973, the iconic Louisiana bedtime story is narrated in full Cajun dialect to a light display that has been a major attraction at Celebration in the Oaks since 2004. In addition, another iconic yearly display is the massive statue of Mr. Bingle, the living snowman, who is something of the mascot of New Orleans' Christmas.
The display in the park is the very same original sculpture that used to be housed in the former Maison Blanche department store. While the Mr. Bingle display is available for the full Celebration in the Oaks season, it is a common point of merriment among the park staff that he goes home to the North Pole for the off-season.
The planning for the event also often culminates in the unveiling of the yearly Christmas ornament for the attraction, which gets a unique, custom design every year, based around some aspect of the park or the lights displays. This year, the ornament is set to be based around the new logo for City Park, and the keepsakes for sale at the Botanical Gardens gift shop typically sell out well before the celebration closes its gates. The beauty of Celebration in the Oaks is a perennial sight to behold, and its yearly charms will live long in the photos and memories of its thousands of attendees.
City Park in the Dark
Be sure to stop by City Park to see Christmas in the Oaks this year. It's a magical experience. The official dates for this year's Celebration in the Oaks are November 24, 2022 thru January 1, 2023.