Open the Gift of Christmas New Orleans Style

November 05, 2013
In New Orleans, holiday traditions are as thick as roux. Steeped in tradition, much has changed since the 1850s. Before Christmas trees became the fashion spurred by Queen Victoria's example, New Orleanians would typically set a small potted wax myrtle or citrus tree on a table. Trees were decorated with little gifts, paper ornaments and tallow candles. Today, exquisite sights, wonderful Creole food, long-treasured 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.

"You'll see a Dixieland Santa Claus
Leading the band to a good old Creole beat
And golly what a spirit
You can only hear it
Down on Basin Street.
Your cares will disappear
When you hear Old St. Nicholas is here
When it's Christmas time in New Orleans."

Our well-worn and mightily loved Crescent City is decked out in lights, bows, and sparkle, ready for the season's pageantry, and it is a wonderful place to find one-of-a-kind Christmas gifts"... Shop away in the Vieux Carre! Santa himself will be jealous of the treasures you will find in New Orleans' great shops, boutiques, and markets. Visit Royal Street for unique gifts for that person who has everything. Shop for the cook in the family in the French Market and scoop up regional homemade jams, spice rubs, and sauces. Many families shop for Christmas ornaments at Santa's Quarters on Decatur Street then go warm up at Molly's at the Market with a traditional hot buttered rum. The French Market District offers great shopping opportunities with six blocks of garland and holiday lights and a 27-foot fleur de lis topped tree!

We want to share some of the traditions any New Orleanian worth his Sazerac wouldn't miss. Cue the music; it's Christmas in the Crescent City!

What is that strange pear-shaped vegetable in the French Market? This time of year, New Orleanians have a peculiar attachment to the mirliton, known as the chayote in other parts of the world. This mild-tasting gourd is a holiday staple that is in season in the fall and winter. It is baked into pies and pastries or roasted and mixed with shrimp, sausage, or crabmeat and served up with the holiday fare... Everyone in New Orleans indulges during the holidays, of course; that's one holiday tradition that knows no borders.

Celebration in the Oaks, a family tradition in New Orleans' magnificent City Park remains one of the most beautifully dazzling holiday light displays with magic aglow at every turn. From November 25th to January 1st you can stroll through a festive park filled with grand live oak trees twinkling with the holiday cheer of two million lights. Walk through the Botanical Garden and Storyland, an amusement area filled with holiday magic including photos with Santa, choirs, a cafe, train rides, a carousel, and amusement rides! This year, there are six new exhibits including "A Jackson Square Holiday," a complete replica of Jackson Square with the Cathedral, Andrew Jackson statue, horse & buggy, and French Quarter balcony.

The New Orleans Botanical Garden has collaborated with Gray Line Tours of New Orleans and Longue Vue House and Gardens to present the "Heart of the Gardens" tour, which showcases the natural wonders and unique landscape of New Orleans and includes walking tours of the New Orleans Botanical Garden and Longue Vue House and Gardens. The tour begins in the French Quarter's courtyard gardens, proceeds down Esplanade Avenue, one of America's most elegant boulevards with its rows of live oaks, and continues along Bayou St. John, one of the city's oldest passages. The tour offers visitors views of homes reaching back to the earliest days of the area's 17th century settlements, then includes stops at key gardening sites, and narration from professional tour guides.

The Historic New Orleans Collection offers Holiday Tours of the 1889 townhouse owned by founders General L. Kemper and Leila Williams. Filled with antiques and other objets d'art collected in their wide travels, the residence is festively adorned with the Williams' original decorations, including a beautiful Christmas tree with vintage ornaments and family photos; visitors will also learn about the family's unique holiday traditions. Or, take a memorable and educational walk with the Friends of the Cabildo through the historic Vieux Carre, decked out for the holidays. Tours emphasize the history, architecture, and folklore of this fascinating city. Also, Don't miss Creole Christmas" at the 258 year-old" Old Ursuline Convent at 1112 Chartres Street with its 276 year-old staircase, and 158 year old Chapel of the first Archbishop of New Orleans.

Experience the Empire grandeur of the Hermann-Grima House at 820 St. Louis Street and the Victorian splendor of Gallier House at 1132 Royal Street, both decking their halls for an old-fashioned Creole Christmas. Guided tours of the completely restored houses offer a wealth of sights and smells that recall the rich traditions of New Orleans' past.

Many think Mardi Gras is the time to visit New Orleans, but the city is actually much more charming and less crowded during the holidays. Lights twinkle down Canal Street, wreaths decorate the streetcars and snow even falls outside Harrah's Casino. "Miracle on Fulton Street" is sure to enchant guests with a dazzling holiday boardwalk, with "Faux snow" forecasted every hour on the hour beginning at noon daily, holiday-themed food and beverages, photos with Santa, face painters, balloon and caricature artists, music, and live reindeer! The Fulton Street Mall is located directly in front of the Harrah's Hotel.

On December 7th, bring the kids to the St. Nicholas Day Fair to meet old St. Nick and secondline with him around the French Market! Kids will experience interactive craft booths to make holiday puppets, ornaments, hats, plus experience a petting zoo, costumed characters, live music, and miniature golf. New Orleans' official holiday parade, the "Krewe of Jingle," will delight with authentic parade floats, marching bands, stilt walkers, Christmas characters and many more magical surprises on December 7th! The parade rolls at 1 p.m. and travels through the streets of Downtown New Orleans.

The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra will present a Baroque Christmas on Thursday, December 12th at 7:30pm with featured selections from Bach and Handel's Messiah. First Baptist Church, 5290 Canal Blvd.

Rudolph, Santa and friends will jingle their bells to signal the start of the Reindeer Run and Romp, a holiday fun run for kids on Canal Street! Participants will receive antlers, a race t-shirt and a bag of holiday goodies. After the race, "Romp" around Spanish Plaza and enjoy yoga for kids & parents, pictures with Santa, music, games, and crafts on Canal Street at Spanish Plaza on December 14th at 8am.

On December 14th at 2pm, children can enjoy a Christmas tradition at the Beauregard-Keyes House at 1113 Chartres Street with a sing-a-long, a story in the elegant ballroom, and see dolls "at tea" while their parents tour the house, then all guests have refreshments and meet Santa Claus by the old-fashioned Christmas tree. Any weekday, tour the Beauregard-Keyes House in Victorian holiday trim, dressed in greenery, velvet ribbons and lace. Hourly tours include the 1826 House, Frances Parkinson Keyes' doll collections, folk costumes, and fans.

Tea anyone? On December 14-15 & 20-23 the Royal Sonesta Hotel hosts their annual Teddy Bear Tea. A favorite children's tradition, whereby the Grand Ballroom is transformed into a Winter Wonderland! This festive event will feature fun activities, story time with Mrs. Claus, a sing along with Rudolph and a new holiday menu. There will also be special appearances by Santa and the New Orleans Saintsations! While there you can purchase commemorative ornaments, and take a picture with Santa while sipping on holiday libations. Unwrapped toys will be collected for the patients of Children's Hospital. Be sure and make you reservation early by calling 504-553-2328

Fire and water find their mix as bonfires illuminate the levees of the Mississippi River to help guide the way for Papa Noël. In St. James Parish, almost an hour west of New Orleans, the small towns of Lutcher and Gramercy host the Festival of the Bonfires. The festival funds the insurance on over one hundred bonfires that burn on Christmas Eve. While the majority of the bonfires will be lit on Christmas Eve, one is lit each night at the Festival, which kicks off with a Gumbo Cook-Off, the signature event, on December 13th. Last year, the event featured 62 gumbos, including traditional chicken and andouille, wild game and the red bean gumbo that is unique to St. James Parish. Larry Roussel, co-chairman of the Cook-Off, said "Forty judges will test the entries, with the top three finishers in each category receiving awards. The winner of each category will compete for the prize of winning the award for the best gumbo. The competitors aren't participating for prize money, though, just pride. That's what it's all about, the braggin' rights." The bonfires are synonymous with St. James Parish's identity. "People build bonfires because that's in our blood," he said. "What Mardi Gras is to New Orleans, that's what the bonfires are to St. James Parish."

Each year on Christmas Eve, the communities of the River Parishes, mainly Lutcher, Gramercy, and Paulina in St. James Parish, along the east bank of the Mississippi River midway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, practice a tradition believed to date back to the late nineteenth century. The origins of this annual bonfire ritual are vague and uncertain. Some say the idea was brought over from rural France and Germany, where bonfires were lit as gestures of friendship. Others believe that these fires were originally meant to light the way for the horse-drawn carriages taking families to the many fancy holiday parties given in the magnificent plantation homes along River Road. Still others claim the fires illuminated the levee for the immigrants on their way to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. The most popular belief, however, is that the fires guided Papa Noël, the Cajun Santa Claus, through the fog on his annual journey down the river in his pirogue pulled by alligators.

A Christmas Eve Bonfire Adventure Tour to see the lighting of the bonfires on the banks of the Mississippi River is a great way to take in the sights. It 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 Oaks and contains one of the finest antique collections in the country.

If you are in a hurry, the Christmas Eve Bonfire Express includes round-trip transportation to view the bonfires that light the way for Papa Noel, our Cajun Santa Claus, to bayou country. For many years this Cajun community has built mammoth wooden structures such as cabins, tepees, & riverboats along the Mississippi River levee. Some walking is necessary. Both tours of the bonfires are offered by Gray Line Tours (504) 569-1401.

Of course music is always a highlight in New Orleans, but hearing some of the country's best musicians sing carols is an unforgettable experience. Free Christmas concerts are held in St. Louis Cathedral" in Jackson Square, the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic cathedral in the U.S. Legendary musicians perform to large and mesmerized audiences. Locals and tourists alike enjoy the tradition of listening to Christmas favorites in one of the most elegant landmarks in New Orleans. Celebrate Christmas Eve as we have for generations by participating in the uplifting family tradition of Midnight Mass. Doors open at 11:15pm with Christmas carols by the St. Louis Cathedral Concert Choir.

Oh what fun it is to ride on a narrated motor coach tour through New Orleans on Christmas Day! Jingle through the French Quarter to City Park to the shores of Lake Pontchartrain then down St. Charles Avenue. Take at lingering walk along the marble floors of the swank, block-long lobby of The Roosevelt Hotel at 123 Baronne Street. This hotel with a $145 million renovation hosts a fantastic annual display of trees and twinkling white lights. Gray Line Tours (504) 569-1401.

Take a trip to Louisiana State Museum's 1850 House to see how the Creoles celebrated Christmas past in the antebellum era"... less extravagantly, but with a greater emphasis on Christmas' religious importance. Decorations include typical small gifts and trinkets that were given around a wax myrtle tree.

Your prescription for holiday cheer is ready at the 19th century New Orleans Pharmacy Museum at 514 Chartres Street, decorated for the holidays featuring a seasonal exhibit and a Tonics & Tinsel Tour with refreshments.

As a prelude to caroling on Jackson Square, savor the holiday spirit on December 22nd as Patio Planters of the Vieux Carre presents a self-guided walking tour of French Quarter residences and historic homes dressed for the season. The tour includes interesting architectural styles and home furnishings as well as a variety of collections of Christmas decorations. Or join the Friends of the Cabildo on a seasonal stroll through the French Quarter with stops at five historic homes. Featured houses include Gallier House, 1850 House, Spring Fiesta, Historic New Orleans Collection's Williams Residence, and Beauregard-Keyes House.

Join in a truly moving annual tradition as Jackson Square brims with candlelit faces and song-lit spirits as high as the spires of the St. Louis Cathedral. Candles and song sheets are distributed, flames are passed from person to person until the whole square is aglow, and voices carol into the evening with all manner of "Fa La La." Gates open at 6:30 with caroling at 7pm on December 22nd.

On Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, old standards are rendered fresh and newly appealing by the Preservation Hall All-Stars's Creole Christmas with Lars Edegran and special guest, Big Al Carson. It's a rollicking yet intimate show for the whole family, attesting to the band's purity and power.

New Orleans counts down to the New Year in Jackson Square during one of the nation's largest street parties! Gather in the French Quarter for live music, the Fleur de Lis drop from Jax Brewery (New Orleans version of the ball) and a fireworks display on the River to usher in the New Year!

So 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. Create a new tradition of your own and celebrate the holiday season, New Orleans style!