New Orleans City Park is known for its collection of live oak trees, Botanical Garden, and the New Orleans Museum of Art. The live oaks are perhaps the most famous part of the park. Some are over six hundred years old and predate the European settlement of Louisiana. The park grounds themselves have a rich and diverse history. The area started out as a dueling ground where male residents of New Orleans could settle their disputes outside of the watchful eyes of city authorities. In the 1850s, a district court created the park out of land left to the city by a deceased plantation owner. By the end of the 19thcentury, the City Park Improvement Association was founded to begin transforming the land into the park that we know today. It was not until the 1980s, however, that one of the park’s most popular and beloved traditions came into existence: Celebration in the Oaks.
In 1984, the Botanical Garden was in need of a new fundraising campaign to fuel the organization’s growth. Mary Rodgers, the chair of the Park’s PR Committee, wanted to drape lights in the Park’s oak trees. However, the idea was too expensive for the time and instead the director of the Botanical Garden, Paul Soniat created a program called “A Tribute to a Christmas Tree” where local artists decorated Christmas Trees. They were displayed in a tent at the Garden.
The idea of decorating the oak trees in lights never went away. For a few years, there were small light displays around the Garden. Those in charge of the park believed that a larger light display would be popular, but it took several years for a plan to come into place. In 1987, the oaks at the front of the Park finally were covered in lights. A local energy company designed a way of powering the lights and underwrote the cost of the electricity. By installing the lights at the entrance to the Park, park management had created a whole other way for visitors to experience the lights—in their cars. Before visitors had to walk around the Botanical Garden to view the displays. Now with the lights spread out through the park, guests never had to leave their cars. This meant that many more people could see the lights at any given time. More lights and more people naturally meant growing the size and scope of the event. So Charles Foti, a local sheriff, organized the construction and installation of holiday exhibits including a “Cajun Christmas Village.”
By 1991, the Celebration in the Oaks received over 350,000 visitors. The popularity of the event led to the creation of additional garden areas and child’s play areas. Over the years, the Park has added a charity walk/run, guided tours, a miniature train, floats, and a host of other attractions. Like the rest of the city, City Park was damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but the organizers of Celebration in the Oaks managed to pull off an abbreviated version in 2005 and as the city recovered from the storm, the celebration grew once again in scope.
Currently, the Celebration features nearly 600,000 lights, attracting over 165,000 people per year. The fundraiser provides 13% of City Park’s yearly operating budget. It opens on the Friday after Thanksgiving and closes on January 3. And it’s a New Orleans holiday tradition that is not to be missed.