Celebration of Light: Christmas in the Oaks

New Orleans has always been a city that’s intoxicated with glitter and pageantry, particularly during the holidays. Adorned with over 700,000 lights, the historic oaks of City Park keep up the New Orleans tradition by welcoming visitors to the fourth annual Christmas in the Oaks. It’s a spectacular celebration of lights, entertainment and merriment…a pageant you won’t want to miss.

There are three ways to view Christmas in the Oaks:

• Drive through the two-mile route.
• Drive through, park and walk through the Botanical Garden, Storyland and the Carousel Gardens.
• Park in Tad Gormley Stadium or outlying streets and enjoy the walking tour.

The miniature train, which can be boarded at the Carousel Gardens, follows the Christmas in the Oaks route and is a popular and convenient way of enjoying the display of lights. Christmas in the Oaks 1990 is better than ever. “We like to plan new attractions to spark the interest of our visitors,” says Ann Spicer, Director of Public Relations for City Park. And with about 500,000 visitors anticipated, Christmas in the Oaks has something for everyone.

A new feature this year will deck the halls of Christmas in the Oaks. Visitors driving through the oaks will be able to bring the event alive with music and narration to accompany the spectacular lighting displays by renting an audio cassette at the entrance to the drive-through route. There will be a nominal fee of $2.00, and riders will return the tape near the end of the driving route. These tapes will provide information, entertainment and enlightenment to enhance the beautiful, but ordinarily silent trip through Christmas in the Oaks.

Much of the tapes’ background music is from Creole Christmas, an album produced locally by Steve and Warren Valentino. The recording features music by some of the city’s best musical artists, including Aaron Neville, Pete Fountain, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, the Zion Harmonizers and many others. (See Rick Coleman’s article in this month’s OffBeat).

Another new attraction is specialty light displays, including one of the most elaborate new presentations, The Chandelier Oaks. Huge crystalline prisms and lighted swags drape a row of seven stately oaks on Victory Avenue.

Flashy fish, sparkling spiders and glittering galaxies in Storyland; futuristic trees and twinkling stars in the Peristyle; and a regiment of larger-than-life toy soldiers along Palm Drive will delight children of all ages. But it’s the trendy neon galaxy that steals the show. Gracing the entrance to Irby Drive is a star-studded archway with futuristic neon ornaments suspended overhead. The grand finale is the Infinity Snowflake, a constantly-changing vision of snowflake images. A show-stopper.

Area decorators and designers created their own holiday fantasies in the gardens and elementary school children decorated over 60 trees in the Gallery of Children’s Trees, a presentation of corporate sponsor Louisiana Land & Exploration.

But Christmas sights and lights aren’t the only attraction at this year’s Christmas in the Oaks.

Anyone bored with the traditional spruce as the Christmas tree of choice can stop by the Botanical Garden to view a horticultural display of various species of indigenous trees that can be used for holiday decorating. After doing a bit of Christmas shopping for topiaries, wreaths and ornaments in the Shop in the Park, visitors can enjoy refreshments in the COM Coffee Christmas Cafe. Adults can relax as the children are entertained by a delightful puppet show, “Cookies and Milk,” in Storyland (showtimes at 6:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. nightly) and a free ride on the Carousel. And Santa also appears every evening at the Gazebo in the Carousel Gardens.

Local gospel groups, church and school choirs, and dance and instrumental groups will set the spirit of the season in the Entertainment Pavilion each night. Entertainment ranges from the Bubble Man and ballet to choruses and cloggers.

And don’t miss Sheriff Foti’s Cajun Christmas Village on Dreyfous Avenue. It’s the result of hours of work by his deputies, staff and work-release participants in the Prison Art Program and is narrated by Justin Wilson on the rental cassette.

Find yourself with a few extra pounds during the holiday season? Burn off some of those Christmas calories in the Christmas in the Oaks Run/Walk on December 15 at 4 p.m. The event is sponsored by the New Orleans Track Club. Victory Avenue at Roosevelt Mall is the site of this year’s “winter wonderland” when New Orleanians can actually enjoy snow at 10 a.m. on December 29.

But Christmas in the Oaks is not the end of a season for City Park; this year, it marks the beginning of a year-long celebration—City Park’s Centennial.

A century ago, local philanthropist John McDonough donated a 100-acre tract of land to the city to form a municipal park that would preserve the natural beauty of the region and provide healthy public recreation for visitors to New Orleans.

As the fifth largest, and one of the most beautiful urban parks in the nation, City Park today stands as a tribute to that legacy and has expanded its vision to become “Louisiana’s Family Playground.”

The Centennial Celebration kicks off on New Year’s Eve at the Carousel Gardens (or New Orleans Museum of Art in case of inclement weather). Ring in City Park’s 100th year with Pete Fountain and His Big Band from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Tickets are $75 per person, or $60 for Friends of City Park members. Valet parking, champagne and hors d’oeuvres are included in the ticket price and reservations are required. The event will also include a spectacular fireworks display that will ignite the Centennial Celebration for 1991.

Each month of 1991 will be dedicated to a different area of the park, with special events planned. The culmination of the Centennial will be a mini “Jazz Fest” on August 11. This celebration, which is tentatively being organized by Festival Productions (the same group that produces the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival each spring) will feature lots of New Orleans music, food and crafts. The festival will spread throughout the gated areas of the park (Botanical and Carousel Gardens, amusements, Scout Island, the Tad Gormley Stadium and the Marconi Meadow).

Christmas in the Oaks, sponsored by the New Orleans Botanical Garden, NOPSI and WWL Television, will open daily December 7 through 30, and on the weekend of December 1 and 2. Lights go on at dusk (about 5 p.m.) and the park entrance closes at 10:30 p.m. The walking tour will be closed December 24 and 25; however, the driving tour will remain open.

The cost of admission is $2.00 per car for the drive-through and $2.00 per person (children four and under free) to walk through the garden areas. Admission is free for Friends of City Park members.

Be on hand to witness the official lighting of the oaks at Christmas in the Oaks’ holiday party, Thursday, December 6, from 7 p.m.-10 p.m. Located in the whimsical Carousel Gardens and the beautifully sculptured Botanical Garden, the affair will feature over 35 local restaurants and caterers. Tickets are $35 per person; call 483-9415 for reservations.