A New Chapter in Childhood

Celebration in the Oaks prompts the Big Question (Is Santa Real?)


When you write about tourism in New Orleans, a wonderful perk of the job is you often get to bring your family with you as you explore the city. Such was the case when my family and I made our annual visit to see the millions of holiday lights in City Park, Celebration in the Oaks.

Celebration in the Oaks has been a New Orleans tradition for 33 years, one families from far and near visit. In fact, more than 165,000 visitors experience the light festival annually. My family made up three of that number on our recent visit, and we left with more than a photo with Santa.

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The evening began as it always does – picking our son up from aftercare with the admission and train ride tickets already in my bag (purchase them online in advance to save yourself a lot of time waiting in line). We entered Celebration at Carousel Gardens and made a beeline for the train station.

The train ride is a really special aspect of Celebration in the Oaks. The little train makes its way around City Park, bringing you to light displays built along City Park Avenue and in the waters of Bayou Metairie, then through Dreyfous Meadow and back to Carousel Gardens. After the train ride, Santa’s gazebo is next to the station for photos.

This is the part of the evening where I cried.

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As we stood in a (short) line to purchase our annual photo with Santa, my son looked up at me with serious eyes and asked, “If I ask you a question, do you promise to tell me the truth?”

I knew, as a mother does, what he was about to say next. Tears sprang into my eyes as he asked if Santa was real, or if it was really just Moms and Dads who gave the presents. I dodged his question, as a mother does, and pointed out that Santa was right over there and we couldn’t possibly talk about this right now. That bought me 90 minutes.

He took his picture with Santa and asked for more Legos. We went to the Campfire Village where he toasted a marshmallow over open flames under “snow” bubbles. We visited the train display and strolled through the Botanical Garden, admiring the new additions to the garden lights. We sat through the “Cajun Night Before Christmas,” which also added lights to help illustrate the charming story. We sang along to the “12 Yats of Christmas” display and laughed every time they said “before you drive me nuts.” We explored the updated Storyland and rode the historic Carousel. Then, he asked again.

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We were prepared. We knew what we wanted to say. We told him Santa isn’t a person who lives in the North Pole, but rather, he represents the special love at the holidays – the love and generosity we practice with family, friends and strangers at this time of year. We told him of the responsibility to help others who still believe and taking on more acts of generosity for himself.

Something magical happened – my son grew up a little bit right before my eyes. So much growth is incremental, only seen after long absences or evidenced by last summer’s shorts being too small this summer. But as he asked his follow up questions and processed this new truth, he left a bit of his childhood behind. And I cried a little bit again.

The exact thing I write about so often, last week even, is that New Orleans is a travel destination because the intrinsic experiences you have here create new memories with accompanying stories. Our culture is one of storytelling, and whether you are a tourist or a local, your stories will be stamped with the invisible mark of New Orleans when they are made here. You will be able to point to an oak tree and tell your son, “This is where you asked me if Santa was real and started a new chapter in your childhood.”


I hope your New Orleans holiday memories are merry and bright.



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