HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS
Christmas in the Country in St. Francisville, LA
by Anne Butler
Home! That heart-warming concept resonates with meaning in Louisiana these days with so many residents still in makeshift quarters, and that’s the theme of this year’s joyous holiday celebration called Christmas In The Country in the quaint little 19th-century rivertown of St. Francisville, Louisiana, the first weekend in December. Highlight of the festivities is always the Saturday afternoon parade, this year marching under the banner of “Home For The Holidays.” And for those who lost homes in the disasters of 2005, the residents of St. Francisville’s Historic District graciously share theirs through a new feature this year, “A Glimpse Of Our Holiday Homes,” inviting visitors to satisfy their curiosity about what lies behind the lace curtains as they peep through designated decorated windows at families gathered around the hearth or singing carols beside the Christmas tree, reminder that home is where the heart is.
In St. Francisville, millions of tiny white lights trace soaring Victorian trimwork and grace gallery posts swagged with greenery to transform this picturesque village into a veritable winter wonderland for Christmas In The Country December 1, 2 and 3. A safe small-town celebration of the season that has for decades provided a joyful alternative to mall madness, the event is so popular that the Southeast Tourism Society has selected it as one of this year’s Top Twenty regional festivals for the month, a highly coveted honor.
The merchants of the town started Christmas In The Country as encouragement to shop locally in the magnificent historic setting that St. Francisville provides. Some of those merchants, like Fay Daniel of The Shanty Too, have been involved for more than three decades, spearheading an event they still get excited about. When a local children’s book included her as a character, this talented shopowner was described as “Miss Fay Daniel, who wasn’t exactly a child any more, but she didn’t know it, and nobody had the heart to tell her.” And that childlike excitement and exuberance over the coming of Christmas is exactly what Christmas In The Country still provides, thanks to Fay Daniel and the other hard-working organizers of this popular seasonal festival. This is especially true as evening falls; the drive through town after dark is truly spectacular with all the twinkling lights, and visitors should be sure not to miss the 75,000-light extravaganza next to the local jail.
Beginning at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1, Santa Claus comes to town to kick off the Lighting Ceremony of the Town Christmas Tree, followed by a public reception at Town Hall hosted by jovial longtime St. Francisville mayor Billy D'Aquilla and featuring performances by the First Baptist Church Children’s Choir. Also Friday evening at 7, the St. Francisville Symphony Association presents its annual concert of seasonal selections at historic Grace Episcopal Church featuring members of the Baton Rouge Symphony’s brass ensemble; a reception follows. Tickets are available from symphony board members or the Bank of St. Francisville (225-635-6397, extension 231).
Saturday, Dec. 2, begins with a 7:30 a.m. Community Prayer Breakfast at United Methodist Church on Royal St. This will be followed by Breakfast with St. Nick for children at Jackson Hall next to Grace Church at 8:30 and 10 a.m., sponsored by the Women’s Service League (advance tickets recommended; call 225-202-5403). Throughout the day there are fun childrens’ activities, pictures with Santa (10-4) and a multitude of food vendors in Parker Park. There will also be all manner of entertainment in various locations throughout the downtown historic district, featuring choirs, dancers, musicians, artisans and other performers. Musical entertainment ranges from the angelic voices of children’s choirs to strolling quartets to the raucous rocking Angola Prison Band.
St. Francisville’s annual Christmas Parade is everybody's favorite small-town holiday parade, sponsored for decades by the local charitable group called the Women's Service League, which also sponsors the sale of immense natural Christmas wreaths on Ferdinand St. to finance dozens of community service projects throughout the year. The parade rolls down Ferdinand St. to Commerce St. beginning at 2 p.m. Saturday. Gaily decorated parade floats vie for coveted prizes, while high school cheerleaders, band members, marching ROTC units and dancers liven things up. There will also be bagpipes, clowns, vintage cars, and representatives of parish and town law enforcement and fire departments, all flinging plenty of candy and parade favors. Santa rides resplendent in a magnificent sleigh pulled by Louisiana State Penitentiary's immense prized Percheron draft horses, groomed and gleaming in the sunlight with their sleigh bells jingling.
The United Methodist Church’s presents its old-fashioned Christmas Carol Sing-Along at 6 p.m. Also from 6 to 8 Saturday evening visitors have the rare opportunity of touring by candlelight the authentically decorated Oakley Plantation house at Audubon
State Historic Site. At 7 p.m., the St. Francisville Transitory Theatre presents “Yonder Star," a free progressive play starting at Sainte-Reine on Royal Street, progressing to nearby Propinquity, and thence to the parish courthouse and across Ferdinand Street to conclude at historic Grace Episcopal Church, turning playgoers into pilgrims anticipating the birth of the Christ Child.
Beginning at noon on Sunday, December 3, a Tour of Homes opens the doors to beautifully decorated private contemporary homes to benefit the Audubon Library; tickets are available at the parish library on Ferdinand St., or by calling 225-635-3364.
The real focal point of Christmas in the Country remains the St. Francisville area's marvelous little shops, all of which go all out for this special weekend, hosting Open Houses for shoppers while offering spectacular seasonal decorations and great gift items. The Historic District of St. Francisville, thanks to an enthusiastic Main Street Program and sensitive preservation regulations, maintains its historic character hand-in-hand with present-day economic viability; this downtown area is very much alive, in fact the center of life in the community.
A variety of quaint little shops occupy historic structures throughout the downtown area and spread into the outlying district, each unique in its own way, and visitors should not miss a single one. From the rich Victoriana of The Shanty Too, for more than thirty years the anchor of the downtown business community and always noted for spectacular Christmas decorations, to the eclectic selection of garden ornaments and chic clothing at Mosaic Garden, to the jewelry beautifully crafted from vintage buttons at Grandmother's Buttons or from beads at The Beaded Path, downtown St. Francisville is filled with fine shopping opportunities. Artist Herschel Harrington has a studio displaying his own works, while the St. Francis and Backwoods Galleries exhibit other local artists' works as well. There’s a used bookstore full of fascinating reading material and some rare autographed early editions, as well as a Christian-oriented bookstore and the ecclectic artsy offerings cum cappacinos of Birdman Books and Coffee.
The West Feliciana Historical Society’s tourist center and museum also has a large variety of tasteful souvenir and gift items, regional books and prints.
On the outskirts of town, intrepid shoppers won't want to miss the one-of-a-kind collectibles at the Vintage Store on US 61 south and Border Imports with its huge inventory of Mexican pottery, ironwork and concrete statuary on US 61 north. Hillcrest Gardens and Interiors overflows with fine gift items and children’s clothing at LA 10 and Commerce St., with The Nest next door housing all sorts of varied vintage treasure in several buildings and Avondale Antiques resurrecting an old quarters shotgun house. Destinee’s Clay Pot and Magic Maker are florists with small gift items as well, and Ins’N’Outs Nursery is well stocked for those giving living green gifts this year. Sage Hill is a newly opened antiques store in a wonderful restored structure across from the post office. On US Highway 61 at LA 10 is an elegant antique mall and outdoor sculpture garden filled with a revolving selection of wares called the Audubon Antique Gallery, in contrast with the nearby Radio Shack full of the latest techno gadgets.
Most of the plantations in the St. Francisville area have gift shops as well, and a visit to those would allow enjoyment of the beautiful seasonal decorations there.
The two state historic sites in the St. Francisville area, elegant 1835 Rosedown Plantation with its glorious 19th-century formal gardens and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon State Historic Site where artist-naturalist John James Audubon tutored the daughter of plantation owners and painted many of his famous bird studies in the early 1820's, are decorated in period style with lots of natural greenery, fruits and nuts, and both offer seasonal activities and demonstrations throughout the month of December. At Oakley open-hearth cooking will be demonstrated all three days of Christmas In The Country, while Rosedown offers cut-rate garden tours.
Located on US Highway 61 on the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge, LA, and Natchez, MS, the St. Francisville area is a year-round tourist destination, but visitors find it especially enjoyable in the winter of the year when the antebellum gardens are filled with blooming camellias. Six historic plantations-Rosedown and Audubon State Historic Sites, Butler Greenwood, the Myrtles, the Cottage and Greenwood-are open for daily tours, Catalpa Plantation is open by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Reasonably priced meals are available in a nice array of restaurants in St. Francisville, and some of the state's best Bed and Breakfasts offer overnight accommodations ranging from golf clubs and lakeside resorts to historic townhouses and country plantations; a modern motel has facilities to accommodate busloads. The scenic unspoiled Tunica Hills region surrounding St. Francisville offers excellent biking, hiking, fishing, birding, horseback riding and other recreational activities.
For online coverage of tourist facilities, attractions and events in the St. Francisville area, see www.stfrancisville.us or www.stfrancisvilleovernight.com, or telephone (225) 635-3873 or 635-6330.
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