N.O. Celebration in the Oaks opens

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Drew, 7, and Kylee Seitz walk through the light display at Celebration in the Oaks in City Park Friday night. Large crowds turned out for the opening of the annual holiday season attraction.
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Drew, 7, and Kylee Seitz walk through the light display at Celebration in the Oaks in City Park Friday night. Large crowds turned out for the opening of the annual holiday season attraction.

New Orleans — Leah Jones and her children drove to City Park from Thibodaux on Friday night for the opening of Celebration in the Oaks this holiday season; first on their to-do list was a visit with Santa Claus.

Harrison, 4, was eager to ask for a toy train set. But Georgia, 1, needed a bit of coaxing from Mrs. Claus and a hug from her big brother before posing for a photograph, then dashing from Santa’s side to catch a ride on the miniature train.

Family fun continues Saturday and begins again Friday through Jan. 1, with the exception of Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Hours are from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

The cost to walk through the event is $7 for those older than 3. Tickets will be sold for rides, including the train and the park’s century-old carousel.

Entertainment includes choirs and dance troupes, and food includes gumbo, jambalaya and crawfish pasta.

“We try to come often, but (Hurricane) Katrina moved us from Chalmette to Slidell,” said Betty Lopez, whose grandchildren Caden, 3, Isaac, 13, and Mariah, 16, are visiting from Dallas and came to the celebration for the first time.

They headed for the carousel, where Elston Howard snapped photographs of his daughter Cameron, 13, and son Brennan, 2, as they rode round and round time and again.

“Last year, he didn’t quite get it, but he gets it now,” Howard said about his son, smiling from the back of a giraffe while his mother, Deven, held him around the waist.

The park was ablaze with more than a half-million holiday lights. They hang in huge oaks as holiday stars, angels and candy cane, and they take the shape of less expected displays, including a white unicorn, a green dinosaur and a colorful pirate ship.

Hundreds of Christmas trees were brightly decorated by local school students. A huge “Who Dat” tree is lit with fleur de lis and footballs, and Mr. Bingle, who once graced Maison Blanche department store on Canal Street, is a popular background for family photographs, as is the 30-foot poinsettia tree.

Traditional exhibits include a life-size nativity scene and the Cajun Night Before Christmas.

Grace Gordey drove from Franklin to enjoy the celebration with her year-old nephew Aiken.

“It’s his first time here,” she said as the toddler roamed wide-eyed through Storyland. “He road the (carousel) horse, he rode the train, and now we’re going to get beignets,” Gordey said.

Bobbie Lumetta, 68, strolled hand-in-hand amid the lights with her date, Lionel Meyn, 72. A widower, Meyn said he and his wife used to enjoy the celebration with children and grandchildren until “they grew up.” He said he took Lumetta to the celebration because she had never seen it, even though she lives in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward.

“I feel like a kid again,” Lumetta said. “You know what’s really nice? I am hearing impaired, and this is all so visual. It’s beautiful.”