New Orleans infuses Christmas with Cajun / Creole charm
NEW ORLEANS — Best known by tourists as a destination in February for Mardi Gras or April for Jazz Fest, the Big Easy in December – particularly around Christmastime – is equally as spectacular.
Although people of many different religions reside in New Orleans, including Jews and Louisiana voodoo practitioners, the city is 36 percent Roman Catholic resulting in a city steeped in yuletide spirit.
The city's history of French and Spanish settlement are primarily responsible for the Crescent City's strong Catholic traditions – as well as numerous parochial schools, street names, architecture, festivals and even the beloved football team, The Saints.
New Orleans is home to St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest continual-use Catholic church in the United States, located in the French Quarter and St. Augustine Church in the Treme neighborhood that's the oldest African American Catholic church in the country.
"If you are Catholic, there is no better place to go to Mass, especially Midnight Mass, than the St. Louis Cathedral," says Christin Logarakis, a New Orleans native for a decade.
The warm weather – this year it was 79 degrees and sunny on Christmas Eve – and the walkability of the French Quarter coupled with a strong public transportation system make the entire city extremely accessible during holiday time.
Because of New Orleans' "anything goes" attitude, visitors can escape Christmas as easily as they can revel in it.
Bourbon Street bars, clubs, cabarets and restaurants are open throughout the entire holiday and there is plenty to do and see that doesn't include joyful carols and jolly St. Nick.
However, for those looking for it, the Christmas spirit is everywhere in New Orleans, from the massive tree outside of Jackson Square topped with a lit fleur-de-lis to the free, seasonal concerts in the French Market to lavish Mid-City decorations. Also worth noting is the diverse depiction of NOLA Santas, including African American Santas and banjo-strumming Dixieland Santas.
City Park's "Celebration in the Oaks" is another major holiday attraction, offering 12 acres of animated light exhibits. There's also a train that runs through the display on a two-mile route.
"Many a couple have gotten engaged during their walk through the Oaks," says Logarakis.
Most of the hotels are uber-decorated for the holidays, including the opulent Hotel Monteleone and the Roosevelt. Others, like the lovely Hotel Provincial, offered an older festive vibe that was every bit as beautiful with a well-tended courtyard featuring dozens of poinsettia plants.
However, the staple cultural elements that cause visitors to fall in love with New Orleans at other times of the year remain the same reasons why people enjoy the Big Easy at Christmastime: the food and the music.
Regardless of warmer weather, New Orleans Christmastime cuisine is a seemingly endless buffet of comfort foods. New Orleans traditional Creole cuisine, which is always rich and hearty, naturally lends itself to Christmas consumption.
"The warm, comforting and savory Cajun and Creole meals are perfect during the winter season," says Aynsley Fein, director of group sales for the Court of Two Sisters, an iconic French Quarter restaurant.
Brunch is huge in New Orleans all year 'round as well as in December and on New Year's Day.
Court of Two Sisters offers an incredible live jazz brunch featuring multiple massive buffets loaded with Southern breakfast foods including, quite possibly, the most creamy and delicious grits in the South.
Brennan's, where the flaming banana's foster was invented, is another NOLA classic for brunch. The three-course menu allows diners to pick an appetizer, main dish and dessert from a comprehensive list of classic Louisiana favorites. Meals usually start with a beverage such as the incredible brandy milk punch.
In general, service in New Orleans is impeccable, almost uncomfortable for diners not accustomed to being waited on by multiple servers at once.
During the 2012 holiday season, more than 50 restaurants in New Orleans celebrated the reveillon tradition of serving decadent, meat-filled, multi-coursed meals.
Taken from the French word for "awakening," reveillon originally was a meal served after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. During the 19th century, American holiday conventions made reveillon dinners less popular, and by the 1940s, the custom was almost extinct. However, in the mid '90s, the reveillon tradition was reawakened and has been a popular – and indulgent – style of holiday eating again ever since.
Restaurants known for these four-or-five-course meals include Palace Cafe, which offered impeccable dishes from gulf fish roulade to grass-fed beef bourguignon.
Newcomer eatery Lüke, headed by the renowned Chef John Besh, is an homage to the brasseries of Old New Orleans and offers up a more modern, classy-but-casual French dining experience. The seafood gumbo, served as an appetizer, is one of the city's best and a meal in itself.
Downtown's Cafe Adelaide is another coveted holiday destination, featuring an usual decor of turtle murals and a menu packed with gems from the perfectly-seared gulf fish to the braised lamb shank served with Cajun grits.
New Orlean's music scene contributes as much as the food to the festive environment. Walking down the streets of the French Quarter in December is similar to walking around other times of the year except the street performers, which range from rappers to tuba payers, include more holiday-themed songs and musicians in Santa hats.
Performances at St. Louis Cathedral take place almost every night in December and include heavy-hitters like the Preservation Hall All Stars, the Faubourg Quartet and numerous acclaimed gospel groups.
Every jazz club in town – particularly the ones on Frenchmen Street in the Maringny neighborhood – is bursting with Christmas music mixed in with other genres. Best of all, most of the time there's no cover charge, even at classic establishments like Snug Harbor and The Spotted Cat.
Kermit's Speakeasy, located in the Treme neighborhood, is owned by jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins who has a reoccurring role on HBO's "Treme." Kermit's serves up a lively and authentic music experience – as well as some delectable-looking plates of barbecue and Creole cooking. During the holidays, greats like Trombone Shorty have been known to sit in.
And of course, a trip to Preservation Hall is a must at any time of year when visiting New Orleans, open every day in December except Christmas Day and featuring Creole Christmas shows. Families spending the holiday together will particularly delight in a holiday show at Preservation Hall where the emphasis is always on the music (alcohol is not for sale).
"Young and old can gather together in one room and be moved together by some of the most emotionally powerful music in the world," says Preservation Hall's J. Lloyd Miller.
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