Friday, November 12, 2010



by Anne Butler

Nothing says Christmas to an excited child more than a parade, especially a safe small-town one like St. Francisville’s popular Christmas in the Country parade the first Saturday each December, complete with marching bands and decorated floats, Santa resplendent in his sleigh and important local officials in convertibles throwing lots and lots of candy. And right out there with all the excited children catching that candy, every year for the three decades this celebration has opened the holiday season in the Felicianas, is Ms. Fay Daniel, owner of one of St. Francisville’s iconic downtown shops. 

Dancers in St. FrancisvilleIt’s not that Ms. Fay is exactly a child, but she doesn’t know that, and no one has the heart to tell her. So she keeps anticipating Christmas and celebrating the season with that childlike exuberance and sense of wonder that make the holidays so magical, regardless of age. In her timeless shop, The Shanty Too, purveyor of “gifts and fancy goods” for those same three decades, she loves to share that excitement, with a holiday open house, spectacular decorations, and great shopping. She has also had a hand in planning and executing Christmas in the Country and its parade since the very beginning, many years as the overall chairperson and always the most enthusiastic supporter.

Of course, the parade has grown considerably in three decades (haven’t we all??). Highlight of a weekend designed to draw holiday shoppers into downtown St. Francisville, it started inauspiciously in the late 1970s with a few hay-filled flatbed trailers pulled by farm trucks or tractors, Scout groups trudging along on foot, a couple of costumed Historical Society stalwarts wobbling along on bicycles, and an earlier generation of politicians flinging tootsie rolls from pickups. Everybody who could beg, borrow or steal a horse rode in the parade, which turned out to be a bad idea and was halted in the interest of safety after a few hair-raising runaways. No one had any idea who would actually show up to participate, so the parade was always a surprise even to its organizers, at least until the Women’s Service League took over the project and set some tasteful guidelines.

white lightsBut even in those early, simple years, St. Francisville’s holiday parade and its ever-expanding roster of wonderful little shops drew crowds. Because, you see, Christmas in St. Francisville, historically the commercial center of surrounding English Louisiana cotton plantations, has always been a magical time. In the 19th century, country folks from miles around would pile into wagons to do their weekly shopping in the little town’s dry-goods emporiums that offered everything from buggies to coffins, gents’ fine furnishings and ladies’ millinery. And at Christmas time, tiny tots would press their noses against frosted storefront windows like those at The Shanty Too to gaze with wistful longing at elegant china dolls and wooden rocking horses.

It’s still that way today, and the historic little rivertown’s Christmas in the Country celebration on December 3, 4, and 5, pays tribute to its heritage and showcases its continuing vitality as the center of culture and commerce for the entire surrounding region. As Fay Daniel says, “We have some really nice stores here, and the shop owners work hard to keep them fresh and up to date.”

Choir at the MuseumMillions of tiny white lights trace soaring Victorian trimwork and grace gallery posts to transform the entire town into a veritable winter wonderland for Christmas in the Country, as special activities throughout the extensive National Register-listed downtown Historic District provide fun for the whole family at this celebration of the season, a joyful alternative to mall madness.   The Saturday parade this year has the theme “SaintSational Christmas,” celebrating not only the championship WhoDat Nation but also the local West Feliciana High School teams, also called the Saints, and riding in the parade and reliving former glory will be several generations of sports heroes, cheerleaders, dancers and homecoming queens.

Beginning at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3, Santa Claus comes to town to kick off the Lighting Ceremony of the Town Christmas Tree, followed by a public reception and fireworks display at Town Hall hosted by jovial longtime St. Francisville Mayor Billy D'Aquilla and featuring performances by the First Baptist Church Children’s Choir and West Feliciana Middle School Choir.   From 6 to 8, visitors have the rare opportunity to glimpse beautifully decorated interiors of participating houses along Ferdinand and Royal Streets’ Peep Into Our Holiday Homes. The Baton Rouge Symphony presents its annual concert of seasonal selections and dessert reception beginning at 7 p.m. at Hemingbough; tickets are available at the Bank of St. Francisville.

Saturday, Dec. 4, begins with a 7:30 a.m. Community Prayer Breakfast at United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall just off Royal St., followed by Breakfast with St. Nick for children at Jackson Hall next to Grace Church at 8, 9:30 and 11 a.m., sponsored by the Women’s Service League (reservations recommended; call 225-721-3563).  The Women’s Service League also sells fresh wreaths and pre-wrapped Plantation Country Cookbooks all weekend on Ferdinand St. next to the library, with proceeds benefiting local civic and charitable activities.

Christmas in the CountryThroughout the day Saturday there will be children’s activities--spacewalk and obstacle course,  pictures with Santa—plus the Main Street Band (noon to 2), handmade crafts and food vendors in oak-shaded Parker Park.  There will also be entertainment in various locations throughout the downtown historic district, featuring choirs, dancers, musicians, and other performers. 

The angelic voices of the Bains Lower Elementary children's choir—Voices in Motion-- are raised at the West Feliciana Historical Society Museum on Ferdinand St. at 9:30. The Bain Elementary Chorus sings at the Methodist Church Fellowship Hall at 9:15, followed by West Feliciana High School's very popular Latin and Spanish Clubs (10:30 a.m.) and the high school choir (11).  At 11:30 on Ferdinand St. the Junior Jazzercise group puts on a lively show, followed by a Shin Sun Korean Martial Arts demonstration. From 10 to 2 the Sweet Adelines’ Lyrical Quartet strolls and sings along Ferdinand and Royal Sts., while the Angola Inmate Traveling Band from Louisiana State Penitentiary performs across from Garden Symposium Park from noon to 4. The children’s musical program called A Joyful Noise performs at 12:15 at Town Hall.

Saturday’s highlight, of course, is the colorful 2 p.m. Christmas parade sponsored by the Women’s Service League. The parade features several grand marshalls, including Jimmy Heidel of the original 1967 New Orleans Saints team, and Darren Coates, local high school grad who went on to be named MVP of the infamous Bayou Classic as a member of the Southern University football team.  Dozens of gaily decorated parade floats vie for coveted prizes, accompanied by cheerleaders, bands, bagpipes, vintage cars, marching ROTC units and dancers. 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 parade lines up on Royal St. and traverses Ferdinand and Commerce Streets, so don’t plan on driving through downtown St. Francisville mid-afternoon. At 6 p.m. on Saturday, the United Methodist Church on Royal St. hosts a Community Sing-a-long, while the First Baptist Church on US 61 at LA 10 sponsors its very popular Live Nativity from 6 to 8 p.m., reminding of the reason for the season.

In addition, Saturday evening from 6 to 8, visitors are welcomed for candlelight tours, period music and wassail at Audubon State Historic Site on LA Hwy. 965, 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. This historic home never looks lovelier than in the soft romantic glow of the candles that were its only illumination for its early years. During the day from 10 to 4, the historic site observes its annual holiday festival.

Parade in St. FrancisvilleChristmas in the Country activities continue on Sunday, December 5, with in-town activities augmented by a Christmas Tour of Homes presented from noon to 5 by the Friends of the Library, showcasing carefully selected contemporary homes; tickets are available at the West Feliciana Historical Society museum and at the library both before and on the day of the tour.

The enthusiastic sponsors of Christmas in the Country are the downtown merchants, and the real focus of the weekend remains the St. Francisville area's marvelous little shops, which go all out, hosting Open Houses with refreshments and entertainment for shoppers while offering spectacular seasonal decorations and great gift items.  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 thirty years the anchor of the downtown business community and always noted for eyecatching Christmas decorations, to the jewelry beautifully crafted from vintage buttons at Grandmother's Buttons, and the incredibly extensive selections of carefully chosen gift and decorative items at Hillcrest Gardens and Sage Hill Gifts, downtown St. Francisville is filled with fine shopping opportunities.  Potter Michael Miller, photographer Toni Ladnier and artists Herschel Harrington and Joe Savell (Backwoods Gallery) have studios displaying their own works, while the St. Francisville Art & Antiques, Avondale Antiques, Bohemianville Antiques, and the newly opened A Few of My Favorite Things shop  feature vintage collectibles and fine furnishings. The Wine Parlor in the St. Francisville Inn has a sale on gift bottles of fine wines, Birdman Books & Coffee has an eclectic selection of books, and Belle Glen Traditions stocks children’s toys plus sports memorabilia and gift items. Ins-N-Outs and Coyote Creek nurseries carry live seasonal plants to complement any decorating scheme. The tourist information center/museum in the West Feliciana Historical Society headquarters on Ferdinand St. has a great selection of books, notecards and prints, plus free maps showing locations of all of the other retail outlets, local plantations, restaurants and accommodations.

Pig in the ParadeOn the outskirts of town, intrepid shoppers won't want to miss the exquisite creations at Patrick’s Fine Jewelry, the fleur-de-lis decorative pieces at Elliott’s Pharmacy and an extensive collection of the latest in electronics at Radio Shack in Spring Creek Shopping Center, as well as Border Imports with huge selections of Mexican pottery, ironwork and concrete statuary on US 61 north.  Most of the plantations in the St. Francisville area have gift shops, and a visit to those would permit enjoyment of spectacular seasonal decorations as well. Restaurants and B&Bs in the area offer gift certificates to extend the giving throughout the year.

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 when the glorious 19th-century gardens are filled with blooming camellias.  A number of splendidly restored plantation homes are open for tours daily: the Cottage Plantation, Butler Greenwood Plantation, the Myrtles Plantation, Greenwood Plantation, plus Catalpa Plantation by reservation and Afton Villa Gardens seasonally. Particularly important to tourism in the area are its two significant state historic sites, Rosedown Plantation and Oakley Plantation in the Audubon state site, which offer fascinating living-history demonstrations most weekends to allow visitors to experience 19th-century plantation life and customs.

enjoying the paradeThe nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography. There are unique art galleries plus specialty and antiques shops, many in restored historic structures, and some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from soul food to Chinese and Mexican cuisine, seafood and classic Louisiana favorites. For overnight stays, the area offers some of the state’s most popular Bed & Breakfasts, including historic plantations, lakeside clubhouses and beautiful townhouses right in the middle of St. Francisville’s extensive National Register-listed historic district, and there are also modern motel accommodations for large bus groups.

For visitor information, call St. Francisville Main Street at 225-635-3873 or West Feliciana Tourist Commission at225-635-4224; online visit (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday morning Community Market Day in Parker Park) or