Holiday Traditions: Past and Present

November 06, 2017
Imagine spending some time in the French Quarter during the holiday season in the 1800’s… can you hear the clip-clopping sounds of horses pulling buggies down the cobblestone streets? When invited into a home along Royal Street, you see a small potted citrus tree on the table decorated with little gifts, paper ornaments, and tallow candles. Mistletoe is hung above the door to bring good fortune throughout the year. Children are excitedly awaiting Pere Noel as they place their shoes in front of the fireplace in the hopes that he will fill them with gifts and hang candy, fruit, nuts, and small toys on their tree. The fireplace holds the traditional birch log that was lit from the last season’s charred remains and will be kept burning until January 6th, or Twelfth Night.

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, noise was a hallmark of the entire holiday season in New Orleans. Both Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve brought crowds of revelers streaming into the densely populated French Quarter. Celebrants blew horns, beat drums, and rang bells while shooting off fireworks and even guns, producing a cacophony that grew more earsplitting as Christmas Day and New Year's Day approached.

Marching bands took to the streets in the French Quarter, and the sounds of their blaring horns and pounding drums reverberated off the old brick and plaster buildings. Residents opened their doors, offering holiday drinks and snacks for band members' efforts. Adding more to the New Year's Eve racket, ships' horns were blown at the approach of midnight, a practice that lasted until recent years. Restaurants and hotels in the Quarter were packed with revelers wearing paper hats and counting down the minutes and seconds to the New Year.

New Year's Day was also time to make visits to open houses all over New Orleans where family and friends met in parlors and shared food and conversation. In the French Quarter, well dressed Creole families and their children wearing new outfits filled the streets making obligatory visits to grandparents and godparents with the prospect of receiving more gifts.

Newspaper boys delivered lavishly illustrated pamphlets containing poetry and good wishes designed to elicit annual money tips from subscribers. There were also young men in their most fashionable new suits, high starched collars, and best hats visiting lady friends. Throughout much of the 19th century, these New Year's Day visits were another obligation of the season. These dandies traveled both on foot and by carriage making as many as several dozen visits to young ladies throughout a busy and tiring day. Each lady, all dressed in their finest outfits, was given a little decorated cornucopia holding bonbons and “dragees,” a sugared almond candy by each male visitor. The women then displayed their caches of gifts to show how many gentleman callers came by. In return, the young men were able to partake of light refreshments including boned turkey, cakes, sweets, and eggnog, which must have become rather filling after a few visits.

Nowadays, celebrating the holidays in the French Quarter starts early in the season for some, especially if you’re here early to enjoy Thanksgiving. And with most French Quarter visitors staying in hotels, laboring over a hot stove is delightfully out-of-the-question. But many restaurants in the French Quarter offer their unique version of a festive Thanksgiving spread. Even the traditional turkey takes on a whole new twist in New Orleans! One of the local favorites that took the whole country by storm is the “Turduckhen,” a unique Cajun creation that combines a chicken inside a duck inside of a turkey. On Wednesday November 22nd, which is Thanksgiving Eve, a wonderful holiday tradition is a visit to legendary K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen for a Turduckhen Thanksgiving meal with all the fixings. K-Paul’s is an iconic Cajun and Creole restaurant in the French Quarter with excellent food, service, and decor, so this is a “must-do!” If you think your mother’s cooking is the best, bring your family to K-Paul’s and start your own new tradition with the quintessential Cajun and Creole Thanksgiving! Reservations required. 416 Chartres Street, 504-596-2930.

The Country Club has been a neighborhood secret for over 40 years. This historic Italianate Raised Center Hall Cottage in the Bywater neighborhood offers an escape from the hustle and bustle of the French Quarter. Hidden away in New Orleans’ charming Bywater neighborhood, it offers an elegant escape from everyday living. Their beautifully renovated restaurant and bar deliver exquisite food and drink in sophisticated surroundings. The separate heated salt-water pool area is a bohemian retreat complete with a poolside bar and outdoor kitchen. Relish in The Country Club’s luxurious secret paradise! The holidays are a perfect time to sit by the pool, sip an intoxicating beverage, and take delight in the city’s most innovative culinary experience. Where else can you appreciate great New Orleans food while soaking your feet in the hot tub? Consider taking a break from cooking this Thanksgiving and let our exceptional Chef Chris Barbato cook a savory meal for you. Enjoy a five-course Reveillon dinner throughout the Holiday season. Don’t miss out on New Year’s Eve, where a unique menu will be featured with a Champagne toast. If you’re just looking for food, friends, and fun, check out their daily happy hour from 4-7 or for Saints games! 634 Louisa Street, 504-945-0742.

Many Reveillion dinners were enjoyed in the authentic and historic 1800's Creole cottage, which is now the home of the acclaimed restaurant Bayona. Slip back in time to dine in the true atmosphere of a French Reveillion celebratory supper, Bayona style. Four courses are served Monday through Saturday evenings from December 11-25 in the cottage’s intimate interior or charming courtyard.

Defying definition or simple classification, Susan Spicer's team creates food that moves across a spectrum of styles and influence. Using the freshest local ingredients to craft flavorful, balanced yet complex dishes is Bayona’s specialty. Since 1995, Bayona has been listed in the Zagat Guide as one of the top five restaurants. A pioneer of the slow food movement, Chef Susan Spicer never disappoints with her contemporary Louisiana fare, an amazing wine list, and excellent service. New Year’s Eve at Bayona includes seasonal cocktails, champagne, and a fixed price meal. Reservations required. 430 Dauphine Street, (504) 525-4455

For many visitors to the French Quarter during the holidays, the absolute highlight of the season is “Caroling in Jackson Square” on December 17th. It’s an annual tradition that started back in 1946, and has now grown to a joyful event with thousands of participants singing their hearts out. Always held on the Sunday before Christmas, Jackson Square is alight with hundreds of hand-held candles as participants with sheet music sing their favorite Christmas carols. The gates to Jackson Square open at 6:30pm and the caroling begins at 7pm, but those who plan to attend are advised to arrive much earlier. For more information call (504) 220-8300 or visit

Celebrate a time honored Louisiana tradition, the lighting of the bonfires on the banks of the Mississippi River on Christmas Eve! Gray Line’s Bonfire Adventure Tour includes round-trip narrated motor coach transportation and a guided tour of the San Francisco Plantation, built in 1855 and reported to be the most opulent plantation house in North America. It is a galleried house of the Creole open suite style, nestled under centuries old live oak trees, and contains one of the finest antique collections in the country. This house inspired the novel “Steamboat Gothic,” written by Frances Parkinson Keyes. A traditional Christmas dinner will be served on the property. A police escort will then accompany our “sleigh of coaches” to view the bonfires that light the way for Papa Noel, our Cajun Santa Claus, in bayou country. For many years this Cajun community has built mammoth wooden structures such as cabins, tepees, and riverboats along the Mississippi River levee. Come see the "feux de joie," over one hundred bonfires of joy! Tour departs at 2:30 pm from the Gray Line Lighthouse Ticket Office located at Toulouse St. and the Mississippi River at the Steamboat Natchez Dock and returns at approximately 9:00 pm. Reservations are required. (504) 569-1401 or visit

Or you may choose to join the Christmas Eve Celebration on the Mississippi River aboard the Steamboat Natchez. The cruise will feature a delicious holiday dinner, a call brand open bar, and live Jazz music by the Steamboat Stompers Trio, 6:30 to 9:30pm. (504) 586-8777 or After you enjoy your cruise or tour, top the evening off by celebrating with the locals at Christmas Midnight Mass at St. Louis Cathedral! It will be a memory you will cherish for a lifetime; it is what Christmas is all about.

On Christmas Day, enjoy ”Jingling through the Crescent” Tour by Gray Line from 10am to 12:30pm. A fully narrated tour of New Orleans in its holiday dress! Tour highlights include the French Quarter, Esplanade Avenue, Faubourg Treme, City Park, Carrollton Avenue, St. Charles Avenue, Audubon Park, Garden District, and a walk through the exquisitely decorated lobby. Departs from Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, 500 Canal Street, (504) 569-1401. graylinesneworleans.

New Orleans was recently voted as one of the top places to “Ring in the New Year” in America and where else would you want to celebrate it than one of the nation’s largest street parties? Gather along Decatur Street near Jackson Square for the Fleur de Lis Drop from atop the Shops at Jax Brewery with live music and fireworks to usher in the New Year. Nearby, a giant diapered New Year baby grins out at the crowd while fireworks shot off barges on the Mississippi River illuminate the nighttime sky.

For the most spectacular view of the New Year’s fireworks display, many people climb aboard the last authentic steamboat on the Mississippi River, the Steamboat Natchez, for their New Year’s Gala. You’ll enjoy a delicious holiday buffet, good friends, party favors, a dance band, toasting champagne, and tempting libations from the premium brand open bar. The steamboat boards at 9:30 and departs from Toulouse Street at the River at 10pm. (504) 586-8777,

The perfect place to toast the New Year is Effervescence Bubbles & Bites, an elegant champagne bar with chef inspired sharing plates such as caviar, pommes frites, heirloom tomato salad, a mushroom tartlet, or grilled cheese. You can order by the half glass, whole glass, or bottle and they also serve still wine, beer, and cocktails. 1036 N. Rampart St., (504) 509-7644

In New Orleans, holiday traditions are as thick as roux as we roll out the red (and green) carpet for visitors and locals alike. Exquisite sights, wonderful Creole food, long-treasured Creole traditions spiced with 21st-century fun, and jazz concerts abound. When Louis Armstrong put his gravelly vocals to smooth brass on the swinging 1955 recording of "Christmas in New Orleans," his voice was like New Orleans itself... a unique blend of rough edges and refinement. Our well-worn and mightily loved Crescent City is decked out in lights, bows, and sparkle, ready for the season's pageantry. Snuggle up in a horse-drawn carriage, or break out your walking shoes to enjoy the magic of the French Quarter draped in garland and twinkling lights. Treat yourself special and enjoy some of the traditions any New Orleanian worth his Sazerac wouldn't miss. Cue the music...'Cause it's Holiday time in New Orleans.