The bright idea that gave us Celebration in the Oaks
Call it the little celebration that grew. To raise money for City Park’s New Orleans Botanical Garden in 1984, Paul Soniat, the garden’s director, suggested getting local artists to decorate Christmas trees to be displayed in a tent in the garden. The event would be called “A Tribute to a Christmas Tree.” Three years later, in 1987, it gained New Orleans Public Service Inc. as a sponsor and moved outside the garden for the first time. The new setting brought a new name, Christmas in the Oaks. Four years later, in a move to be more inclusive, it became Celebration in the Oaks, an event that has continued to grow, helping raise money for the park and delighting those who pass through it.
Celebration in the Oaks has become phenomenally popular, attracting about 165,000 people a year and raising about 13 percent of the park’s operating budget of slightly more than $12 million, according to the City Park website. The 2017 production is set for Nov. 24 through Jan. 1; it will be closed Nov. 27 to 30 and on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Admission is $9 per person; there is no charge for Friends of City Park members and children under 3.
- The display includes about 600,000 lights to dazzle visitors.
- To stage this spectacle, six paid staffers work about eight months, and volunteers contribute an incalculable number of hours.
- Early on, there was discussion of draping the trees with lights, but that notion was discarded as too costly. That concern went away when NOPSI, which provided the city’s electricity, became the event’s chief sponsor. NOPSI has since become Entergy New Orleans.
- Visitors aren’t allowed to drive or ride in carriages through the illuminated wonderland anymore. For folks who don’t want to hoof it, they can board the park’s train for a two-mile ride past the fanciful displays.
- Even though Hurricane Katrina slammed City Park on Aug. 29, 2005, Janet Larue and Barbara Hammett, the Celebration co-chairwomen, were able to pull together an abbreviated version of the event less than 100 days later.
- In 1987, the office of Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Charles Foti installed the multi-building Cajun Christmas Village. It was a Katrina casualty.
- Angela Hill, the WWL-TV news anchor, was instrumental in the event’s survival. When attendance was low in 1986, she was invited to visit the garden; as a result, she volunteered to be the event’s chairwoman the next year, and she recruited Jim Cain of New Orleans Public Service Inc. to be the principal corporate sponsor.
- Because this is also the season of Hanukkah, exhibits include a lighted menorah and an animated dreidel, which is a top bearing four Hebrew letters.
- Santa Claus is a regular visitor. In 1988, that role was played by running back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward of the New Orleans Saints. He was on hand for the lighting of the Salvation Army’s Tree of Lights next to the park’s Casino building.
- The 2013 staging of Celebration in the Oaks was the first to use all LED lights.
There’s no denying the appeal of City Park’s majestic oaks when their boughs are hung with lights; the experience is enhanced by music and caroling. In the grim months after Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleanians were struggling to rebuild, Celebration in the Oaks provided a blessed respite, if only for a little while, from the hassles of dealing with contractors and insurance agents. Year after year, Celebration in the Oaks is enough to make even the most blasé grownup smile.