Celebration in the Oaks is a part of the holiday tradition of so many families in the New Orleans area and across the country.
But how did it begin?
As the New Orleans Botanical Garden continued to grow in the early 1980s, a fundraising event was needed at the Park to aid in that growth. That event became what we know today as Celebration in the Oaks.
The first idea came about in1984 when Mary Rodgers, chairperson of the Park’s Public Relations Committee, came up with the idea to drape lights in the Park’s large oak trees. She met with various people including Candy Davie, the designer for New Orleans businessman Al Copeland’s light display at his home. These initial ideas proved to be too expensive at the time, so Paul Soniat, Director of the New Orleans Botanical Garden, developed the 1984 program called, “A Tribute to a Christmas Tree.” Local artists decorated Christmas trees that were displayed in a tent in the Botanical Garden.
In 1985, Betty Bagert brought the New Orleans Federated Council of Garden Clubs aboard to take over the task of decorating the trees. The 1985 “Holiday Celebration” was open for a few days before Christmas. But as Soniat recounts when he speaks about the history of Celebration in the Oaks, “For the first few years of the event, nobody came.” He knew the potential because those who did come appreciated the event. The answer was classic public relations.
Soniat asked Angela Hill of Channel 4 WWL to come to the Garden between Christmas and New Year’s 1986 to see the decorations. Hill was so excited about the project she volunteered to be the 1987 Chairperson. That year she recruited Jim Cain of the New Orleans Public Service (NOPSI) to become its major financial sponsor. In 1987 the name of the event was changed to “Christmas in the Oaks” and is viewed as the first year of the event. The 1987 event was the first to see any lights reach areas of the Park outside of the Botanical Garden. The large oak trees at the front of the Park were draped in lights. Using the oaks permitted the display of simple and affordable large lighted ornaments like stars, balls, and diamonds that looks beautiful in the trees. Retired NOPSI engineer, Jim O’Donnell, volunteered to develop an electrical plan for the Botanical Garden and for a driving tour through the Park where people could view the decorated exhibits from their car. These plans permitted NOPSI to estimate the electrical requirements needed, and cost of producing the event. The total event cost was entirely underwritten by NOPSI that first year.
In 1987 Sheriff Charles Foti provided deputies and inmates to assist in fabricating and installing the exhibits. He installed, “Cajun Christmas Village,” that was on display until Katrina.
1987 was also the year Sheriff Charles Foti began providing deputies and traffic control. This proved necessary because of the large number of people who wanted to view the event either walking through the Garden or viewing the event from their car. The popularity of the walking tour in the Botanical Garden prompted another expansion in 1988 to include Storyland and Carousel Gardens.
Also in 1988 Rick Lusky, with the New Orleans Track Club, started the two-mile run/walk called the Celebration in the Oaks Run/Walk. Dan Gill and the Louisiana Extension Service began contributing a poinsettia display.
In 1990 the Park provided audiocassettes with narration to go along with the lighted exhibits along the driving tour and also some speakers along the route. That year 350,000 people visited the event.
In 1991 the expanded Christmas in the Oaks became Celebration in the Oaks.
Mister Bingle with Barbara Hammett and Janet LaRue
Janet Larue and Barbara Hammett became Co-Chairs in 1992 and remained as chairs for an incredible 14 years. Under their leadership many new aspects of the event were created. They increased the money and donations the event received from sponsors at all levels. They started the Children’s Preview Party in 1992. They developed a Non-Profit Night and also special school nights which involved the participation of local school children and their families in Celebration in the Oaks.
They were very instrumental in reviving Celebration in the Oaks following Katrina. In December of 2005 they worked out of their garage to re-open Celebration less than 100 days following the storm. When much of the city was dark that night, Celebration in the Oaks shined.
In 1992, Clarence Ecklemann was able to get RTA to build two cabooses with generators, which allowed the miniature train to be lit during the event. In 1995, the first Hanukkah exhibit was introduced.
A family favorite, Cajun Night Before Christmas, was created in collaboration with Pelican Publishing in 2004.
In early 2005 Dillards department store gave the Park the large installation ‘float-like’ item we know as Mister Bingle.
Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans in August of 2005 and didn’t spare New Orleans City Park. Along with the City of New Orleans, the Park itself suffered massive damages. The Park was able to pull together an abbreviated version of Celebration in the Oaks to give some joy to the people of New Orleans in December of 2005. Unfortunately due to the hurricane, the driving tour was suspended.
In the years since 2005, the event has continued to grow. FOX 8 joined Celebration in the Oaks as the event's exclusive local media affiliate. Magic 101.9 continues to be the musical accompaniment for the event. In 2011 the Dripping Snow Tree was added. In 2012, the staff showed off their talents by adding a Pirate Ship, Treasure Island, and Flamingo Island. Victoria the Unicorn was also created and she lives in the Hyams Fountain at the entrance to Carousel Gardens. The 2013 season was also the first year the entire event used all LED lights.
Yet another aspect of Celebration in the Oaks is the enormous volunteer contribution. Volunteers help prepare for this event each year. School choirs, bands, and dance troupes are scheduled each night to entertain visitors. As with many aspects of the Park, this event wouldn’t be possible without the great volunteers. The small paid staff of 6 people work over 8 months before the event opens each November. They are a talented group and work hard to make each bigger and better. Each year we try to bring back the traditional items and bring in new installations for everyone to enjoy.
What started with some Christmas trees in a tent has grown into a celebration with nearly 600,000 lights and delighting more than 165,000 people a year.
Celebration in the Oaks is a New Orleans City Park fundraiser that provides 13% of the operating budget of New Orleans City Park each year.