Festive Holiday Happenings In and Around the Vieux Carre

October 31, 2016
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. We want to share some of the traditions any New Orleanian worth his Sazerac wouldn't miss. Cue the music...'Cause it's Holiday time in New Orleans.

When people think of a traditional holiday celebration around America, they don’t often think of “Papa Noel,” lavish Réveillon Christmas dinners, huge bonfires along the Mississippi River, and French Quarter balconies draped with holiday red and green…but that is what makes up Christmas in and around the French Quarter!

The best way to describe how we celebrate the holidays in the French Quarter is to equate it with how we cook our traditional gumbo. Just like any good gumbo recipe, it’s a mixture of many cultures, many individual tastes, and many family traditions that all somehow come together in the end as one delicious concoction that is a holiday delight for one and all!

To get the full flavor of the French Quarter, you really need to get out and walk the many streets to see up close all the holiday merriment and decorations. Another option is to take one of the mule-drawn Royal Carriage tours featuring a guide regaling you with tales of Christmas past and present. And oftentimes, the drivers will stop and let you run into a local watering hole for an ice-cold cocktail or a hot toddy “to go” that will make your tour even more jolly!

Celebrating the holidays in the French Quarter starts early in the season for some, especially if you’re here to enjoy Thanksgiving. And with most French Quarter visitors staying in hotels, laboring over a hot stove is delightfully out-of-the-question. But every restaurant in the French Quarter offers 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, originally created by the late K’Paul, that combines a chicken inside a duck, inside a turkey.

With a name like The Bayou Classic, this football game could only be played in Louisiana! And each year during the Thanksgiving weekend, it comes to New Orleans and pits two historically black football rivals, the Tigers of Grambling State and the Jaguars of Southern University in the “Bayou Clash” at the Superdome. It’s evolved into a five-day event featuring a parade that goes to the French Market, seminars, a battle of the bands and, of course, the big game in the Dome on Saturday, November 26th. Go to mybayouclassic.com for game time and events.

On November 17th, one of the first signs of Christmas appears when a 27-foot fleur de lis-topped tree is lit with much fanfare at the French Market Annual Tree Lighting Ceremony from 5 to 6pm. It takes place in Washington Artillery Park, across Decatur Street from Jackson Square. Enjoy costumed characters, caroling, and the lighting of the tree with city officials. Secondline to St. Louis Cathedral following the tree lighting for the first St. Louis Cathedral Concert of the season featuring gospel by The Jones Sisters; the concert and tree lighting usher in the 2016 Christmas, New Orleans style! Visit frenchmarket.org for more information.

You can enjoy the sounds of the season at historic St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic cathedral in the U.S. On Jackson Square, the Christmas New Orleans Style Cathedral Concerts features free concerts by prominent New Orleans musicians in the jazz, classical, and gospel genres. The Cathedral Concerts are held from 6 to 7pm on November 17th and 20th and on December 4th through 6th, 8th, and 11th through15th, and ending with their annual Christmas concert on December 18th. (504) 522-5730.

If you really want to get a taste of what the French Quarter was like decked out for the holidays back in its early years, take a memorable and educational walk with the Friends of the Cabildo. They host a Creole Christmas on December 27th through 29th, giving guests the opportunity to visit five French Quarter historic homes decorated in traditional Christmas finery. For those history buffs that enjoy New Orleans’ antebellum era, the 1850 House is a must-see. It’s not the usual over-the-top Christmas style that you might find in some of the other homes, because it shows more how the Creoles celebrated Christmas in a religious way. Decorations include typical small gifts and trinkets that were given around a wax myrtle tree. Other featured houses include the Gallier House, Spring Fiesta House with refreshments, Historic New Orleans Collection’s Williams Residence, and Beauregard-Keyes House. Self-guided tours begin at the 1850 House Museum Store at 523 St. Ann Street on Jackson Square from 10am to 4pm. Tours are conducted all of December except for Mondays and holidays. (504) 523-3939. friendsofthecabildo.org

Throughout December, you can visit another historic French Quarter home as it celebrates the Christmas Season in traditional ways! See the house donned in Victorian-style decorative trim of velvet, ribbons, and lace. Tours start on the hour, 10am to 3pm. Beauregard-Keyes House and Garden Museum, 1113 Chartres Street. (504) 523-7257.

Step back in time and learn the holiday celebrations of three Creole families in 19th-century New Orleans in the beautiful Hermann-Grima House and Gallier Historic Houses. Guided tours of these two meticulously decorated homes will include information about Réveillon, New Year’s celebrations, and Twelfth Night events common in Old New Orleans. 820 Saint Louis Street and 1132 Royal Street (504) 274-0746

Hop on Gray Line’s “Santa’s Bus” for a three-hour narrated tour of “Celebration in the Oaks” that is guaranteed to get everyone of every age in the Christmas Spirit! See historic City Park transformed into a holiday wonderland. Its ancient oak trees are aglow with massive ornaments decorated with over 1/2 million sparkling lights. Children from area schools create handcrafted ornaments to decorate Christmas trees that line the walkways in the Carousel Gardens & Storyland. Exhibits include the Cajun Night Before Christmas, a “Who Dat” Tree, Santa Gator, a life size Nativity scene, and “A Jackson Square Holiday”. Live nightly musical entertainment features a mix of school choirs, orchestras, bell choirs, dancing troupes and gospel groups. The Friends of City Park Holiday Gift Shop and the Botanical Garden Shop are open nightly for special holiday shopping. Food and drink are available for purchase at the Holiday Café, which features a variety of local and holiday fare. Enjoy live musical entertainment, gift items, amusement rides, food and drink for purchase. Bus tours run from December 2nd -23rd and 26th-30th daily, from 6 to 9pm. Gray Line Tours departs from the Toulouse Street Dock. (504) 569-1401. graylineneworleans.com

On Thursday, December 1st at 6:30 pm, the Royal Sonesta Hotel at 300 Bourbon Street hosts the Lighting of the Balconies. This is an annual French Quarter celebration where the hotel throws the switch on to thousands of holiday lights. Music and fan-fare spill into the street, a delight for the entire family, and is free and open to the public.

In December, the lovely Hotel Monteleone lobby will echo with the beautiful sounds of holiday cheer as school choirs from the Greater New Orleans area sing familiar holiday carols. Get a cocktail from the beautiful Carousel Bar and enjoy the joyous, youthful voices. Hotel Monteleone, 214 Royal Street. (504) 523-3341

The Krewe of Jingle parade will delight crowds with authentic parade floats, marching bands, stilt walkers, Christmas characters, and many more magical surprises on Saturday, December 3rd at 1pm. The parade starts at Lee Circle, goes down St. Charles Avenue, and then along Canal Street. It’s a great chance for visitors to New Orleans to catch a few “throws” from the floats and enjoy a taste of the Mardi Gras season.

On December 10th from 10am to 4pm, celebrate the holidays with activities and treats for the entire family at the Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium. Meet Santa Claus, join in a buggy reading of a holiday favorite, and sample buggy holiday treats. Also, face painting and holiday balloons available for the kids! 423 Canal Street (504) 861-2537.

For those who wish to view how private homes dress up for the holidays, the Patio Planters of the Vieux Carre presents an excellent opportunity on December 18th with a self-guided Holiday Home Tour of French Quarter residences and historic homes decorated for the season. The tour includes interesting and architectural styles and home furnishings as well as a variety of collections of unique Christmas decorations. Tours are at 1pm and 4pm and tickets are available for purchase at Creole Delicacies, 533 St Ann Street at Jackson Square, and French Quarter Gem and Lapidary, 527 St. Phillip Street. (888) 756-6250. Patioplanters.org.

For many visitors to the French Quarter during the holidays, the absolute highlight of the season is Caroling in Jackson Square on December 18th. 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 patioplanters.org.

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 graylinesneworleans.com.

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 steamboatnatchez.com

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 the 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 in 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.

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 steamboatnatchez.com

On January 2nd, the 2016 Sugar Bowl in the Superdome is the only place to be for one of the biggest college bowl games in America! If you have a hangover from the night before, grab a Bloody Mary or two and get ready for all the noise and excitement that comes with a big Bowl game in the Dome! It’s an unbeatable sporting event made even more exciting if your favorite team is participating! allstatesugarbowl.org.

The annual Joan of Arc Parade is a French Quarter walking parade that is always held on Joan of Arc's birthday, January 6, or Twelfth Night. The Krewe de Jeanne d’Arc includes approximately 200 members dressed in medieval clothing handing out thematic handmade favors, accompanied by moveable art pieces, live music, knights, royalty, peasants, angels, and Joan of Arc on horseback, promoting our French cultural heritage. joanofarcparade.org/ Whatever holiday activity you choose, you are sure to enjoy a uniquely New Orleans memorable experience. Warm wishes to you and yours as we celebrate the holidays, New Orleans style!