Holiday Traditions in the Vieux Carré

November 01, 2019
Cue the music; it's holiday time in New Orleans! 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. Imagine spending some time in the French Quarter during the holiday season in the 1800’s…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 Père Noël 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 rang bells while shooting off fireworks and even guns. Marching bands took to the streets 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. On New Year's Eve, ships' horns were blown at the approach of midnight. Restaurants were packed with revelers counting down to the New Year.

New Year's Day was a time to make visits to open houses to share food and conversation. In the French Quarter, well dressed Creole families and their children wearing new outfits filled the streets making visits to grandparents and godparents with the prospect of receiving more gifts. Newspaper boys delivered pamphlets containing poetry and good wishes designed to elicit tips from subscribers. Young men in fashionable new suits, high starched collars and their best hats visited lady friends. Each lady dressed in their finery was given a decorated cornucopia holding bonbons by their many male suitors. The women displayed their gifts to show how many dandies visited them, a popularity contest of sorts!

Nowadays, celebrating the holidays in the French Quarter starts early, especially if you’re lucky enough to be here early to enjoy Thanksgiving. With most visitors staying in hotels, laboring over a hot stove is delightfully out-of-the-question. Many restaurants 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 Louisiana favorites that took the country by storm is the “turducken,” a unique Cajun creation that combines a chicken inside a duck inside a turkey! On Wednesday, November 27th, which is Thanksgiving Eve, a wonderful holiday tradition is a visit to legendary K-Paul’s Louisiana Kitchen for a Turducken 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. For more information, visit 416 Chartres Street or call 504-596-2930.

On Thanksgiving Day, if you are looking for a fun activity, consider a City Tour with Gray Line. Travel through three centuries of history, legends and romance including the French Quarter, an historic cemetery, Bayou St. John, the Garden District, and more! Visit or call 504-569-1401.

If you are looking for a little exercise and a learning experience in one, Friends of the Cabildo offers French Quarter walking tours from the 1850 House Museum Store at 523 St. Ann Street. Tours are Tuesday through Sunday at 10:30 am and 1:30 pm and are led by licensed guides. They offer neighborhood, cultural, literary, and history tours, as well as interesting film series, adult educational classes, and pilates in the elegant Cabildo on Jackson Square. On Dec. 27-29, don’t miss their Creole Christmas Tours which leads guests through historic homes throughout the French Quarter at their own self-guided pace, providing a glimpse into how Creoles celebrated the holiday in the past. It includes volunteers in Victorian dress demonstrating Creole Christmas traditions and offering refreshments that were popular in mid-1800s. It especially focuses on the réveillon, the sumptuous but light banquet that follows the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. For more information, visit or call 504-523-3939.

For many visitors to the French Quarter during the holidays, the absolute highlight of the season is Caroling in Jackson Square on December 22nd. 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 6:30 pm and the caroling begins at 7 pm, but arrive earlier! For more information,visit or call 504-220-8300.

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 containing 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 the “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. Throughout December, Gray Line also offers tours of Celebration in the Oaks in City Park, the most spectacular holiday lights festival in the country, a magical winter spectacle. Visit or call 504-569-1401.

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 by the Steamboat Stompers Trio, 6:30 to 9:30 pm. For more information, or call 504-586-8777.

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, the reason for the season.

On Christmas Day, enjoy the Jingling through the Crescent tour by Gray Line from 10 am to 12:30 pm, 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 of The Roosevelt Hotel. Departs from Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, 500 Canal Street. For more information, visit or call 504-569-1401.

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 pm and departs from Toulouse Street at the River at 10 pm. For more information, or call 504-586-8777.

In New Orleans, holiday traditions are as thick as roux as we roll out the red and green carpet. Exquisite sights, wonderful Creole food, long-treasured traditions spiced with 21st-century fun, and jazz concerts abound. 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 order a hot buttered rum or a café brûlot and dive in to some of the traditions any New Orleanian worth his Sazerac wouldn't miss. You’ll be sure to start your own traditions!