Holiday Traditions, Past and Present

November 05, 2018
Traditionally, the winter holiday season in New Orleans was a two-week celebration, beginning on Christmas Eve with Midnight Mass and continuing through January 8th with the commemoration of the Battle of New Orleans. Celebrations were also held on New Year’s Day, with neighborly visits, family gatherings, and large parties, as well as on January 6th, the Epiphany, also known as Twelfth Night or Kings Day, the official start to the Carnival season leading up to Mardi Gras.

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 hard 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 turkey, cakes, sweets, and eggnog.

Shopping was not a huge part of the holidays in the past like it is today. It was a time to dress up, bring small gifts of food or flowers, and to celebrate with our friends and family. They likely bought these items from street vendors or at The French Market. Dating back to 1791, it is the oldest documented farmers’ market in America and was originally a Choctaw trading post. Today, there are myriad shopping options. For fine art, there are so many wonderful galleries including Martin Lawrence Gallery, Gallery Rue Royal, Gallery Arlo, and Rhys Gallery. Also, take a stroll down the shops of the upper Pontalbas on Saint Peter Street along Jackson Square. Here you will find Cella’s Boutique, a fashion-forward women’s boutique specializing in high-quality clothing along with unique and intricate jewelry, colorful scarves, and fashionable footwear for every occasion! Muse Inspired Fashions provides unique clothing, jewelry, and boots. Aspiring chefs will love a gift from The New Orleans School of Cooking. They feature pralines and a selection of local and regional culinary delights, seasonings, and hand-made cypress roux spoons. NOLA Couture designs clothing and accessories inspired by New Orleans and Gulf Coast culture. Ooh Lala is a gallery specializing in contemporary jewelry and art. Their playful, collectible pieces made with Swarovski crystals and Murano blown glass and fanciful Venetian masks make great gifts. OMG! specializes in vintage statues, antique religious prints, one of a kind art and hand crafted jewelry and pottery. A Simpler Time sells nostalgic art, decor, vintage signs and gifts from a bygone era. Rendezvous Linen and Lace has new items created from lace embroidered 20 to 40 years ago. When you finish shopping, reward yourself with a sweet from The Fudgery!

Like so much about New Orleans culture, Réveillon’s roots can be traced to the French Creoles who dominated the city’s early settlement. Réveillon is generally translated as “awakening,” a reference to the fact that the holiday meal required family members and guests to remain awake late into the night. The tradition dates back to the 1800s when Catholic families, famished after fasting on Christmas Eve, would return from Midnight Mass to indulge in a decadent buffet meal. Dinners lasted until dawn. Réveillon depended on a cast of servants, often slaves, to prepare a meal while the family was out at services, and to then to oversee the meal and dishes into the wee hours. Today, one may find these multi-course fixed price Réveillon menus in many restaurants in the French Quarter including Bistreaux, Broussard’s, Kingfish, The Bombay Club, and so many more!

For many visitors to the French Quarter during the holidays, the absolute highlights of the season are the Holiday Home tours, where French Quarter residents open their homes and “Caroling in Jackson Square” on December 16th. It’s an annual tradition that started back in 1946, and has now grown to a joyful event. Always held at 7pm 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 Yuletide season is celebrated from the week after Thanksgiving through January at the Hermann-Grima House, 820 St. Louis Street, and Gallier House, 1132 Royal Street. Surrounded by period-inspired greenery, decorations, food and creole cooking demonstrations, guides explain the unique 19th-century holiday traditions of New Orleans and trace the origins of modern-day Christmas celebrations. 504-274-0750.

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 transportation, a tour, and Christmas dinner at 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 containing one of the finest antique collections in the country. This house inspired the novel “Steamboat Gothic,” written by Frances Parkinson Keyes. Following dinner, their “sleigh of coaches” goes to view over one hundred bonfires that light the way for Papa Noel, our Cajun Santa Claus, in bayou country. For over a decade, this Cajun community has built mammoth wooden structures such as cabins, tepees, and riverboats along the Mississippi River levee. Reservations are required.

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, an open bar, and live Jazz by the Steamboat Stompers Trio, 6:30 to 9:30pm. 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 includes a walk through the exquisitely decorated lobby.

New Orleans was recently voted as one of the top places to Ring in the New Year! 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 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, friends, party favors, a dance band, toasting champagne, and tempting libations from the premium open bar. The steamboat boards at 9:30 and departs from Toulouse Street at the River at 10pm.

The perfect place to toast the holidays is Effervescence Bubbles & Bites, an elegant lounge serving sparkling wine and luxurious local sharing plates. Cozy up to the fireplace or enjoy crisp evenings in the courtyard. Indulge in bubbly flights of sparkling wine from around the world by the full or half glass. Every Wednesday, Effervescence pops open a Champagne magnum to pour by the glass, double the excuse to celebrate midweek! Discover the deeper side of bubbles with a flight of sparkling red wine, a seasonal special.

The bites menu for snacks or dinner includes gulf seafood plateau with caviar, dry-aged Louisiana wagyu beef, pommes frites with seasonal aioli and a grilled half wheel of cheese with levain toast. For dessert, try the rich individually portioned dark chocolate créme brûlée with spiced doughnuts. To pair with chocolate and cooler weather, try a glass of sparkling red wine.

Ring in the New Year with caviar and champagne! The caviar selection includes local, luxury, and vegetarian options. A full bar serves both bubbly and classic cocktails, beer and spirits. Reservations available on Open Table.

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 food, long-treasured Creole traditions spiced with 21st-century fun, and 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 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 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!