Wednesday, November 16, 2011

St. Francisville, La. Christmas in the Country

by Anne Butler
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 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 December 2, 3 and 4th pays tribute to its heritage and showcases its continuing vitality as the center of culture and commerce for the entire surrounding region with an event-filled weekend designed to draw holiday shoppers into historic downtown St. Francisville.
Christmas ParadeMillions 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.  
Beginning at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2, 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 and West Feliciana Middle School Choir.  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. 3, 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 and 9:30 a.m., sponsored by the Women’s Service League (reservations recommended; call 225-718-3847).  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.
Laughing at the ParadeThroughout the day Saturday there will be children’s activities--spacewalk, 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 10 a.m. From 9:30 to 10:30 the West Feliciana High School Performance Choir sings at the United Methodist Church Fellowship Hall, followed from 11 to 11:45 by the school’s Beginning and Advanced Choirs. 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 front porch of Town Hall is gospel headquarters with stirring performances from 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. by the Williams Singers, Second Chance, New Beech Grove Baptist Church Male Chorus and the Sensational Soul Searchers, while New St. Luke Baptist Church Music Ministry also has a cookbook sale there.
Saturday’s highlight, of course, is the colorful 2 p.m. Christmas parade sponsored by the Women’s Service League. 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 Saturday parade this year has the theme “Rolling on the River,” its grand marshall the longtime local ferryboat captain, especially appropriate as St. Francisville prepares to host the travelling Smithsonian exhibit “Journey Stories” examining settlement routes and patterns across the country, with one of the most important early highways being the Mississippi River itself. Christmas in the Country publicity posters this year feature St. Christopher, patron saint of travelers.
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.
Christmas in the Country activities continue on Sunday, December 4, with in-town activities. 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, great gift items, and extended hours.  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.
Special GiftsFrom 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.  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, A Few of My Favorite Things and the newly opened Bayou Pickers shop feature vintage collectibles and fine furnishings. Femme Fatale specializes in fine fashions.
The Wine Parlor in the St. Francisville Inn has gift bottles of fine wines, and Birdman Books & Coffee has an eclectic selection of books. Ins-N-Outs, Wild Bunch Farms 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.
On 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.
White LightsLocated 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.
The nearby Tunica Hills region offers unmatched recreational activities in its unspoiled wilderness areas—hiking, biking, birding, photography. There are some fine little restaurants throughout the St. Francisville area serving everything from ethnic cuisine to 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 at 225-635-4224; online visit (the events calendar gives dates and information on special activities, including the lively monthly third Saturday Community Market Day in Parker Park) or