New Orleans, Louisiana promises and delivers good times year round. Mardi Gras brings the biggest and most boisterous crowds, summer is laid back, but the days following Thanksgiving through Christmas are the best. Temperatures are ideal; the streets are clean and warmly festooned with green boughs, red bows and white lights. New Orleans follows its deep Catholic roots and celebrates Christmas, not the winter holidays.
The season brings many special events, and one of the finest is the free concert series in the historic St. Louis Cathedral and Basilica. Listen to prominent New Orleans musicians, church choirs and singers in jazz, classical, gospel and pop genres. I was most fortunate to attend a gospel concert last December, and by the end of the evening everyone in the sanctuary was standing, waving their arms in the air and shouting “Hallelujah!”
I noticed, among the Gothic splendor, the central ceiling adornment, a painting of the Holy family with baby Jesus. How appropriate. Anyone interested in architecture will marvel at the 1794 building and the acoustics that heighten a sense of reverence.The St. Louis Cathedral concerts generally run for an hour, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m and are open to the public at no cost.
Of course New Orleans is renowned for its fabulous Cajun and Creole food and the holidays call for indulgence. The Reveillon Dinner tradition dates back to the French Creoles, some of the city’s earliest inhabitants. After midnight mass, families would return home and “reawaken” themselves with a rich feast: chicken and oyster gumbo, game pies, soups, soufflés, lavish desserts, brandy and coffee. The word reveillon means “awakening.”
By the 1940s, the Reveillon tradition was slowly fading. However, it was revived in the 1990s. Today dozens of French Quarter restaurants offer Reveillon Dinners with prix-fixe menus inspired by Creole dishes. As you might expect, expert chefs have added a ‘Wow’ factor with their culinary creativity.
My Reveillon Dinner at Kingfish included fried oysters with tasso and saffron cream, a golden beet salad, lamb loin, spinach, roasted sweet potato chunks with a cherry bomb sauce and my choice of dessert. After dinner I was able, thankfully, to walk back to my hotel.
Luxury travelers will discover an abundance of fine lodging options, many offering discounts in early December. Consider the Bourbon Orleans, Ritz Carlton, Hotel Monteleone or Omni, all within the historic district. The hotel lobbies burst with wondrous trees and glittery decorations, while champagne service pleases even the most discerning.
If you are hesitant about traveling with children, don’t worry. The Crescent City abounds with activities that keep youngsters entertained without nearing Bourbon Street. Some of the top-tier hotels feature Teddy Bear and Nutcrackers teas for families.
I attended a proper English tea service in the Windsor Court Hotel beginning with a glass of sherry, sparkling wine, specialty cocktail or nonalcoholic drink and a properly brewed pot of tea. Then came English tea sandwiches with truffle egg salad, cucumber, smoked salmon, smoked turkey, curry chicken salad and lobster salad; gingerbread and cranberry-orange scones with raspberry preserves, Devonshire cream, lemon curd and vanilla bean whipped cream, plus dessert: a miniature cake, tartlet, chocolate-covered strawberry and truffle. I’d be hard pressed to find a more pleasant way to idle away an afternoon.
More over-the-top surprises include the annual “Santa Paws” dog parade and costume contest; New Orleans’ official holiday parade, the “Krewe of Jingle,” with authentic Mardi Gras-type parade floats, marching bands, stilt walkers, Christmas characters and more; and The Running of the Santas” where hundreds of people dressed in Santa suits run, jog or walk down the Convention Center Boulevard.
Need to do some holiday shopping? Bargain hunters find lots of culinary treats, NOLA mementoes and other stocking stuffers at the French Market. Those looking for pricier gifts should try the Crescent City’s fine antique shops, jewelry stores or art galleries.
Two local organizations, the Preservation Resource Center and the Patio Planters, conduct New Orleans holiday home tours on selected weekends during the month of December. The PRC tours take place in homes within the city’s Garden District, and the Patio Planters tours include residences in the French Quarter. Visitors can view and study the homes’ architecture and renovations made to update older homes, as well as see posh holiday decorations. Many homeowners are available to answer questions either before or after the tours.
A memorable tradition since 1946 is Christmas Caroling in Jackson Square (the Sunday before Christmas). Envision the emotional impact of illumination from hundreds of candles held by singers, both amateur and professional, who come together in song. The gates to Jackson Square open at 6:30 p.m. and the caroling begins at 7:00 p.m.. Those who plan to attend are strongly advised to arrive early.
This is a very popular event that sometimes exceeds the capacity of the square.
New Orleans suffered through Katrina but is once again a shining city. I have never seen it more beautiful or welcoming than in early December. Consider a holiday getaway to New Orleans: www.neworleansonline.com/