New Orleans may be this country’s biggest party city, but at Christmastime the Crescent City holds a celebration like no other.
In the French Quarter on Jackson Square, the historic St. Louis Cathedral and Basilica plays host to an annual tradition of free concerts by New Orleans’ greatest musicians, church choirs, classical, gospel and jazz singers. The acoustics of this elaborate structure, which dates back to 1794, lend an air of reverence to the music. The concerts, produced by French Quarter Festivals Inc. as part of Christmas New Orleans style, are free, but donations are accepted.
Thousands of people participate in Christmas caroling on Jackson Square, a tradition that began in 1946. On the Sunday before Christmas, the square is illuminated with candles held by singers, both amateur and professional, who sing favorite Christmas music. This event is also free and open to all, regardless of religious affiliation.
Take a walk or ride a miniature train beneath the sprawling oaks of City Park, all decorated with thousands of colorful lights and illuminated outdoor displays. During the Celebration in the Oaks, visitors walk along trails lined with Christmas trees decorated by school groups, and people look for their perennial favorites, such as the animated “Cajun Night Before Christmas” tree and the “Who Dat Tree?” adorned with the black and gold of the New Orleans Saints.
In Carousel Gardens, both children and adults can ride the world-famous century-old carousel with its ornate horses. The family-friendly Celebration in the Oaks began more than 30 years ago and takes place after dark, beginning the Friday after Thanksgiving and continuing until the day after New Year’s.
Along the Mississippi River, glowing bonfires have been a holiday tradition for more than 150 years. Families living along the river construct wooden teepees for their Bonfire Christmas when family, friends and visitors gather. Children believe the glow from the fires lights the way for Papa Noel to find their homes on Christmas Eve.
The bonfires provide a colorful link to the past along the River Road, and signal the start of Christmas celebrations. Cajuns originally built their bonfires of logs, cane reeds, bamboo and old rubber tires, but due to environmental concerns tires are no longer used. The bamboo and cane reeds create the crackling sound.
Friends and family gather on the levee to celebrate the lighting of the bonfires with fireworks, food and drink, always including a hearty gumbo. The spectacular Bonfire Christmas is a true folk tradition enjoyed by people of all ages.
During the holiday season many New Orleanians decorate their homes in colorful and imaginative holiday styles and open them for tours. Two groups offer self-guided tours on select December weekends.
The Preservation Resources Center tour features a half-dozen homes in the Garden District, where visitors can tour the gracious houses, chat with homeowners, then enjoy a boutique and cafe at the tour’s headquarters, Trinity Episcopal Church at 1329 Jackson Ave. For information, call 504-581-7032 or visit www.prcno.org.
The Patio Planters holiday tour takes visitors through several elegant French Quarter residences, many with gardens or courtyards decked out in the spirit of the holidays. The walking tour features interesting architectural styles and a variety of collections of Christmas decorations. For information, visit www.patioplanters.org.
Forget the fruitcake; bread pudding is the dessert for Christmas dinner in New Orleans. Visitors can partake in a Reveillon dinner, a practice that dates back to the 19th century. Reveillon means “awakening” in French, and the Creoles celebrated the start of the Christmas season in the 1800s with a big family meal which was served after they returned from midnight Mass.
The tradition was revived in the 1990s and today 48 of New Orleans’ famous restaurants offer the Reveillon dinner, with modifications — it’s served during the dinner hour instead of the wee hours of the morning. So gather around a large table in a French Quarter restaurant for your family’s own Reveillon, and don’t forget the bread pudding for dessert.
For a nostalgic look at Christmas, head to the Stage Door Canteen at the World War II Museum, where the Victory Belles present “A Swingin’ Christmas.” You can add a dinner by Chef John Besh at the American Sector restaurant.
New Orleans has more than 85 events for the holiday season, and more than half of them are free. To find out more, visit www.neworleanscvb.com.