The more homes get cable or a dish, the more New Orleans becomes like the rest of the country. Holidays and other special occasions are the times when we remind ourselves and the rest of the world just how unique life is here in New Orleans. Here are some of our favorite Christmas things:
This is the best time of year to explore places such as Gallier House on Royal Street, the Hermann-Grima House on St. Louis Street, Longue Vue Gardens on Bamboo Road (near Metairie) and the 1850 House next to Jackson Square. The 1850 House and Gallier House are done up for Christmas in the 1850's, while the Hermann-Grima House is set about twenty years earlier. See what celebrating Christmas was like before the Civil War. Longue Vue Gardens isn't strictly New Orleans, but is decorated up English-style, reflecting Georgian and Victorian times.
Just as the museum houses in the Quarter are done up for Christmas, so are the plantation homes on the Lower Mississippi River, just north of the city. Oak Alley, Nottoway, Tezcuco, and others are all decorated for the holidays, and the cooler temperatures of December make this a nice drive.
Fortunately for the visitor to the city, the worst of the holiday shopping traffic is out in Metairie. The section of Veterans Blvd. between Causeway Blvd. and Clearview Pkwy. is the worst, because of Lakeside and Clearview Malls. The visitor has it a lot easier, since the shops in the Quarter, along Magazine Street, and in the small shopping centers such as Riverwalk and Jackson Brewery aren't as insane. For the visitor who needs to get to a more typical mall, there's always New Orleans Centre, located next to the Superdome. There's a Macy's, Lord and Taylor's, and a host of small stores and shops.
An event going back years now, this is one of my favorites. On the third Sunday in December, locals and visitors alike gather in Jackson Square to sing traditional carols by candlelight. The Square is always jam-packed, and everyone is touched by a truly magical evening.
Lots of other music going on at this time of year. The Neville Brothers usually come home for the holidays, but they don't usually play as a group. This means we get treated to the various offshoot bands: Charles' Diversity, Art's Funky Meters, Cyril's Uptown All-Stars. There's Celtic music at O'Flaherty's Pub in the Quarter, Handel's Messiah by the Louisiana Philharmonic, The Nutcracker, carols at the Old Ursuline Convent, as well as many other places in the city.
The folks along the river always light big bonfires on the levees to light the way up the river for Papa Noel. These bonfires are the big Christmas Eve event for residents of the River Parishes of St. Charles, St. John, and St. James. Groups of families get together and pile up wood as high as 20' in the air, sometimes fashioning unique shapes such as ships, log cabins, etc., out of the wood piles. The fires are lit at dusk, and everyone goes out along the levee to great neighbors and friends before going off to Midnight Mass.
Going out to eat is a New Orleans passion. Since the holiday season is a big time for our restaurants, many have continue a time-honored Creole tradition: the Reveillon feast. Reveillon is a fixed-price, multi-course dinner served nightly at many of our better restaurants in the area. What's nice about Reveillon is that the price per person is usually lower than what the restaurants usually charge. Sure, it's a fixed, table d'hote menu (the entrees are normally to one fish or seafood entree, and one meat or chicken entree), but it's a great way for a family or group of friends to get together and not break the bank.
Lots of 'em, particularly in the suburbs. The most notable light display is Celebration in the Oaks in City Park, but lots of average New Orleanians decorate their homes with lights to celebrate Christmas. The ones that stand out are Al Copeland's home at Transcontinental and the lake in Metairie, Lafreniere Park in Metairie, the park next to the Kenner City Hall on Williams, and the streets from Maine to Texas (just off of David Drive and West Esplanade) in Kenner. This last one is a group of streets where almost everyone in a four street-by-three block section decorates their homes in a big way, even stringing lights on the power lines! Al Copeland (of Popeye's Chicken and Copeland's Restaurant fame) always goes all-out for the holidays. Mr. Copeland loves to tell of how he was so moved by the Centanni home on Canal Street and all of its lights and decorations when he was growing up that he decided to do the same kind of thing for today's kids.
Celebration in the Oaks draws more visitors than any other attraction or event in the city other than Mardi Gras. Many of the oak trees in City Park are hundreds of years old, and they're decorated with thousands of lights, hanging ornaments, and other Christmas things. The Botanical Gardens in the park are decorated with lights and hundreds of Christmas trees, each one decorated by students at the various local schools. You enter the park on Wisner and Friedrichs (the street Christian Brothers' School is on), drive around through the park, and come out back near the New Orleans Museum of Art. The walking tour through the Botanical Gardens shows everyone just how much fun New Orleanians have at Christmas time. The rides next to Storyland are open, and the miniature railroad trains are all decorated with lights, making for a romantic and fun ride through the park. Celebration in the Oaks is open every evening from Thanksgiving to New Year's.
Even non-Catholic churches have services at midnight in New Orleans, so strong is this tradition. At the Catholic churches from Mereaux to La Place it's standing room only. The oldest churches are the prettiest, such as the Cathedral, St. Mary's uptown, Holy Name next to Loyola, etc. The suburban parishes also pack 'em in for Midnight Mass, making this a wonderful family experience. If you'll be in town visiting family, get everyone together and go to Midnight Mass. It's a great way to experience a Creole Christmas.
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