Crescent City Christmas

In New Orleans, traditions are as thick as roux. To get your fill in December, just follow the firelight.
Sandy Lang

When Louis Armstrong put his rolling, gravelly vocals to smooth brass on the swinging 1955 recording of “Christmas in New Orleans,” the distinctive holiday appeal of his hometown was set. Armstrong’s voice is like New Orleans itself—a blend of rough edges and refinement, unlike anything else. And in December, the well-worn and mightily loved Crescent City is decked out in lights, bows, and sparkle, ready for the season’s pageantry. Fetes start early, with a month of Réveillon dinners—often all-evening affairs where the Cajun-spiced and Creole-sauced courses keep coming. Celebrations culminate with towering bonfires ablaze on the levees, lighting up the bayou on brisk, year-end nights.

Here are some of the traditions any New Orleanian worth his Sazerac wouldn’t miss. Cue the music...’Cause it’s Christmastime in New Orleans.

Group Sing
Around sunset on the Sunday before Christmas, locals and visitors break into carols as they make their way through the French Quarter for the free Caroling at Jackson Square. In front of the tall spires of St. Louis Cathedral, volunteers hand out candles and song sheets, flames are passed from person to person until the whole square is aglow, and the voices sing into the evening with “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night,” and all manner of fa la la.

Gumbo Nights
Seasonal custom—and common sense—calls for fasting before a Réveillon night. The dinners are borne of the Creole tradition of serving a meal that could last until dawn after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. (Réveillon is French for “awakening.”) Dozens of New Orleans restaurants, including such classics as Antoine’s and Arnaud’s, now serve prix fixe Réveillon menus of three, four, five, or more courses throughout December—from bisques to baba au rhum. Patrons dress in dinner jackets and cocktail dresses and linger at tables for hours. A dining room decked out in gold-painted magnolia wreaths marks the Réveillon season at Arnaud’s (504/523-5433), the 93-year-old landmark on Rue Bienville where guests sip icy gin cocktails, watch a jazz trio sway, and dine on such specialties as Gulf Fish Courtbouillon, an intoxicating, Creole-spiced fish stew. Several streetcar stops away, JoAnn Clevenger, owner of the cozy Upperline (504-891-9822), strolls from table to table in a red dress, pausing here and there to bring more rémoulade or share selections of her favorite places in New Orleans, from independent bookstores to art galleries.

Sparkle In the Lobby
Just about everyone in town takes at least one lingering walk along the marble floors of the swank, block-long lobby of The Roosevelt Hotel (504/648-1200). This hotel, refurbished since Hurricane Katrina with a $145 million renovation, hosts a fantastic annual display of trees and twinkling white lights. On a smaller scale but worth a stop when on Royal Street is the classic Hotel Monteleone (504/523-3341). The hotel hosts caroling choirs from New Orleans schools near a tall tree in the lobby. The Columns Hotel(504/899-9308), an 1883 Italianate mansion on St. Charles Avenue, dresses up for the weekly Champagne jazz brunch on Sundays with bough-decked porches and garland swags throughout the mahogany-paneled parlors.

Festive Sippers
In the shorter daylight hours of winter, Big Easy mornings of coffee with chicory turn to afternoons and evenings with cocktail options aplenty. At The Bombay Club (800/699-7711) in the Prince Conti Hotel, the rich Eggnog Noël blends nog with a jigger of butterscotch Schnapps. Tucked in Arnaud’s, the French 75 Bar (504/523-5433) serves up a Christmas spirit, The Contessa, a gin-based libation of grapefruit juice, Cranberry Cordial, Aperol, and Angostura bitters. And half-bottles of French red wines start at $11 in the cafe at the 214-year-old Napoleon House (504/524-9752), where the well-worn patina and portraits of Napoleon bolster the corner house’s charm. On December afternoons, the bartender shakes up frothy Brandy Milk Punches, one after another, topping each with a sprinkle of nutmeg.

St. Charles Tours
One of the hottest tickets of the season gets you inside some of the most splendidly decorated Garden District homes during the 36th Annual Holiday Home Tour (December 10-11; $35), organized by the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans. The seven homes with open doors for this year’s lineup include a circa-1875 Italianate residence on Prytania Street with double galleries (two stories of columned porches) and a grand home on St. Charles Avenue where the annual Mardi Gras king always stops for a formal toast. Local musicians play at every house, and tour-goers are invited to stop for gumbo and po’boys at the tour’s holiday cafe in Trinity Episcopal Church, nearby on Jackson Avenue.

Creole Food Traditions
This time of year, New Orleanians have a peculiar attachment to the mirliton—known as the christophine or chayote in other parts of the world. Lumpy and pear-like, this mild-tasting gourd is conspicuously stacked in markets around the city in fall and winter, bought by residents who bake the holiday staple into pies or roast and scoop out the insides to mix with shrimp, sausage, or crabmeat. Palm-size mirliton pies are sometimes offered at Creole favorites such as Domilise’s Po-Boys and Bar (504/899-9126), and whole mirlitons can be bought, in season, at the Crescent City Farmers Market (504/861-4488).

Local Trinkets & Treasures
If you’re still shopping for the season, Le Jouet (504/837-0533) in Metairie will give you a nostalgic nod to the toy stores of old. Hands-on, no-battery-needed gadgets and games—disappearing ink, jigsaw puzzles—along with dollhouses and wooden train sets stock the aisles. An open doorway gives a view of staff assembling toys and wrapping gifts in a busy scene that looks like the workshop of Santa himself. Uptown on Magazine Street, the Longshore Studio Gallery (504/458-5500) displays art and furniture—vintage chairs reupholstered in slick, brightly colored vinyl; paintings that often feature fashion icons in colors so bold you’ll think you stepped into a Mardi Gras parade. Also on Magazine, Sucré (504/520-8311) makes a sweet stop for delicate macaroons, chocolates, and decadent pastries. Several blocks away at Mignon Faget (504/891-2005), find NOLA-inspired jewelry, including a series of pendants honoring the closest thing to snow in the bayou—the shaved ice “snowballs” scooped up at stands around the city.

Lighting of the Levee
Fire and water find their mix around New Orleans at Christmastime. According to Cajun tradition, bonfires illuminate the levees of the Mississippi River to help guide the way for Papa Noël. Algiers Point on New Orleans’ West Bank, a short ferry ride from the foot of Canal Street, held its first organized bonfire since Hurricane Katrina last year and is planning another for the first Saturday in December. In St. James Parish, about an hour west of New Orleans, the small town of Lutcher hosts the 22nd Annual Festival of the Bonfires, featuring a gumbo cook-off, a gingerbread-house contest, and a nightly bonfire after sunset. There, visitors may even buy miniature replicas of the stacked-wood pyres and take them home to await Papa’s return. And on Christmas Eve, friends and families gather to light bonfires along the levee in a tradition that has grown so much that Gray Line now offers a Bonfire Express motor coach tour.