Every holiday season, the Louisiana community of Natchitoches becomes perhaps the state’s brightest beacon of Christmas. As part of a six-week celebration, the heart of the city shimmers with some 300,000 lights, a lovely constellation relieving the darkest nights of the year.
It seems a fitting way to remind the nation that Christmas, or our ideal version of it, isn’t always defined by New England. Thanks to greeting cards, Christmas TV specials and holiday films, Southern children learn from an early age of a yuletide shaped by ice and snow. We’re weaned on a notion of December that makes us feel the best Christmases must be white — and that our milder yuletides are somehow second-best.
But the frosty landscapes of Currier and Ives seemed far away when my wife and I visited Natchitoches last weekend as its Christmas festival sprang into high gear. Afternoon temps were in the 70s, and the sky was blue and unshadowed by clouds while we brunched at a restaurant on Sibley Lake. A windless day kept the lake still, and across the water on the opposite shore, the high sun illuminated autumn foliage in a blaze of copper and orange. On the dock, parents and young children lingered happily, with not a gust or a chill to chase them inside. Most of the customers wore short sleeves. On the last month of the year, it could just as easily have been May.
Winter is a roulette wheel in this part of the world, tropical days alternating with afternoons so frigid and gray that thoughts turn to gumbo and thick bedroom quilts. Our Christmases are often cold enough to draw us together from need rather than choice, but there also have been yuletides that look more like Jamaica than the North Pole. Like any Louisiana resident who’s lived here a while, my holiday memories include Christmases when the mercury hovered high. I remember breaking in a new basketball from Santa while wearing a T-shirt and shorts. In other years, I’ve hung wreaths on our door while swatting mosquitoes.
The South needs its own stories to celebrate Christmases where snow isn’t the starring character. The smattering of Southern Christmas stories on my bookshelf hints at what’s possible. Every December, I try to revisit “Christmas Country,” an essay by Anne Rivers Siddons that recalls her childhood holidays in small-town Georgia. “My Christmas country,” she writes, “is forever that of a small southern town in the soft, wet, gray days of December, when street lights first wear opal collars. The time is always first dusk, when the lopsided evergreen trees in front of the freight depot bloom into primary colors, the wounded gaps where the power lines go through obscured in radiant clouds of Christmas light.”
Such is the vision of the Southern Christmas. It is, as far as I can see, as grand as anyone else’s.