by Erin Z. Bass
Earlier this month, two friends from Alabama invited me to join them in New Orleans for the weekend. Their agenda included a concert in St. Louis Cathedral, reveillon dinners and a Victory Belles holiday show at the World War II Museum. I couldn’t say no to all that and thus discovered the magic of Christmas in New Orleans. This year, the city’s holiday campaign (and Krewe of Jingle Parade held December 3) features “Mad Men” television star Bryan Batt, who played Sterling Cooper’s art director Salvatore. A native of the city and co-owner of Hazelnut home accessories shop Uptown, Batt is featured in ads and videos encouraging holiday goers to spend time shopping, eating, caroling and taking advantage of hotel rates starting at $79 all month.
People might 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. Of course music is always a highlight in New Orleans, but hearing some of the country’s best musicians sing carols in St. Louis Cathedral is an unforgettable experience. New to the city’s concert series this year is St. Augustine Church, the oldest African-American Catholic church in the United States, as a venue. Located on Treme Street, the church’s performance by John Boutte earlier this month was especially fitting since he wrote the theme song for HBO’s television series “Treme.” Remaining Cathedral concerts are offered December 18-21, and St. Augustine‘s final concert is December 17 with Glen David Andrews, better know as Trombone Shorty, performing a Christmas Gospel Show. Even better, all the concerts are free, although the Cathedral does ask for a small donation at the door.
The chance to participate in one of New Orleans’ oldest culinary traditions is another great reason to visit in December. French for “awakening,” the term reveillon dates from the mid-1800s, when Creole families in the city enjoyed an elaborate meal after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. A second reveillon took place on New Year’s Eve with eggnog, pastries, sugar sculptures and crystallized fruits helping to ring in the New Year. By the 1940s, the custom had become extinct. In the 1990s, French Quarter Festivals Inc., which produces the concert series and popular spring music festival, revived the tradition by asking restaurants to offer special holiday menus.
This year, more than 40 restaurants are offering Reveillon Dinners, starting at $38 for several courses. We chose Upperline’s, priced at $45 for four courses. Located in an old house a short ride from the French Quarter on the St. Charles streetcar, Upperline is know for its art collection and traditional New Orleans food. I dined on turtle soup, fried green tomato shrimp remoulade, fish piquante and bread pudding with toffee sauce – only a small slice of dishes offered on the Reveillon menu. If you’d rather stay in the Quarter and dine, Emeril’s and John Besh’s restaurants are all participating, as are historic institutions like Court of Two Sisters and Galatoire’s.
Music and food are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to celebrating Christmastime in New Orleans. Living history characters are offering tours and caroling throughout the French Quarter, chefs are holding cooking demonstrations at the French Market, and historic homes like the Beauregard-Keyes House are trimmed to perfection and open for tours. Not to mention just popping into hotels like The Roosevelt to view their enormous trees and elaborate decorations. For entertainment, the Victory Belles’ show at the World War II Museum’s Stage Door Canteen runs through January 8 and includes popular Christmas songs from the 1940s and ’50s. I was surprised to learn that some of the most iconic Christmas songs, such as “White Christmas” and “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” were recorded in the midst of wartime.
Can’t make it to The Big Easy before Christmas? Don’t worry. New Orleans will be decked through New Year’s Eve and was named “one of the world’s best New Year’s Eve parties” by Budget Travel and CNN.com. Ring in 2012 from the Riverview Room in Jackson Brewery or aboard the Steamboat Natchez and carry the spirit of New Orleans with you throughout the the year.
Photo credits, from top: Shotgun house by Jeff Anding, Cathedral interior by Nijme Rinaldi Nun, Cathedral caroling by Pat Garin, reveillon dinner by Nijme Rinaldi Nun and Peace Y’all by Pat Garin. All photos courtesy of New Orleans CVB.