On a clear mid-November morning, a buoyant yet focused Mary Ellen Miller strode through a section of City Park’s Botanical Garden, deftly answering questions from her decorating crew along the way. The group was setting up the entertainment tent for Celebration in the Oaks, which kicks off Friday night.
Where are the bows? How should the Nutcracker dolls be arranged on the walls? Is there enough gold ribbon?
Miller responds to each person without skipping a beat. And just when she thinks she’s found a moment to catch her breath, her cellphone rings.
“They need me by the carousel,” she says 10 seconds later, tucking the phone into her back pocket.
Miller is the chairman of the Celebration in the Oaks decorating committee — nearly 200 volunteers who help stage the holiday lights festival.
Most are members of the Federated Council of New Orleans Garden Clubs, but others are friends or relatives who simply want to help.
“We've had people that heard about it and volunteered,” Miller said, pointing out a worker. “She saw (a notification) in the newspaper and showed up.”
During the 31st annual Celebration in the Oaks, 25 acres of City Park will be illuminated by nearly 600,000 twinkling lights, and embellished by 500 poinsettias and elaborate decorations. Families can enjoy live entertainment, along with thrilling rides in the amusement park.
The sprawling event contributes nearly 13 percent of New Orleans City Park’s yearly operating budget. It’s made possible by seven staff members, park employees, volunteer performers, schoolkids and, of course, Miller’s crafty crew.
Since this year’s decoration theme is "The Nutcracker," the committee festooned the entertainment tent with handmade dolls representing characters from the Tchaikovsky ballet.
Wreaths wrapped in thick, glittery ribbon are adorned with delicate ornaments and fabric Sugar Plum Fairy figurines. Mister Bingle-inspired wreaths are also popular.
Chandeliers made of shimmering gold tinsel dangle from the ceiling.
“It's a group effort,” said Miller. “There's nothing that can be done by one person. It has to be lots of people working together, with lots of enthusiasm.”
Oh, Christmas trees
In the nearby Conservatory of Two Sisters, a man called Jimbo slowly ascended a steep ladder and placed a poinsettia atop a 30-foot triangular structure, which would soon be covered by crimson holiday plants.
Outside of Storyland, giggling seventh-graders from Kehoe France decorated a small Virginia pine. A boy wearing a sweatshirt tied around his waist circled the tree with a spool of decorative string. A girl with a dark-brown ponytail silently stepped over the string, allowing him to pass, while gently placing her ornament onto a prickly branch.
The collection of trinkets comprised thin sheets of copper, etched with designs, and colorful yarn pompoms.
“Our theme is diversity around the world,” said a polite Daisy Ohmes, the seventh-grade class president. “We were inspired by different cultures during Christmas.”
The festive pompoms provide the “final touches,” she added.
New and old
Celebration in the Oaks will showcase familiar sights, like the "Cajun Night Before Christmas," the fluorescent pirate ship floating on a lagoon, and the illuminated train that weaves throughout the shadowy park. The colossal, fiberglass Mister Bingle sculpture remains a popular destination for selfie-snapping revelers.
“We try to sprinkle in some new stuff, but we know that people love coming back every year to see the things that they saw the year before,” said Amanda Frentz, New Orleans City Park’s assistant director of public relations.
This year, the holiday bash will boast an oak tree bedecked with glowing “300” decorations that symbolize New Orleans’ 300th anniversary, and a large interactive “naughty or nice” dial.
Kids can roast marshmallows and snack on sweet treats, including sno-balls, because “we've had Christmases where it's been 85 degrees,” said Frentz.
The entertainment tent will feature comedians, singers, school choirs and Irish dancers.
The Celebration in the Oaks staff begins brainstorming ways to make the extravaganza “bigger and better” in early March. Then they start sketching, welding, and assembling new displays and placing the larger ones in the proper locations.
Since Frentz concocts her marketing plan well before the holiday season, she often listens to Christmas music to “get in the spirit.”
“It drives some of my co-workers crazy,” she admits. But by the time November rolls around, “everybody's on board.”
Three preview parties act as a soft opening for the main event, while last minute preparations happen a few days before Thanksgiving, when certain parts of City Park are closed to the public. Volunteers also check each light bulb.
By opening night, the staging crew is ready to greet the crowd of merrymakers.
“It's not so much of a mad dash, because we do a lot of prep and planning. It's more of an exciting adrenaline rush,” said Frentz. “We work together as a team, and we're able to see the fruits of our labor every night, in the faces of kids screaming out in joy. That's always wonderful.”
What: Celebration in the Oaks
When: Nov. 24-Jan. 1
Closed Nov. 27-30, Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve; times vary.
Admission Tickets: $9 per person; children under 3 and Friends of City Park members enter for free; neworleanscitypark.com/celebration-in-the-oaks