New Orleans, Louisiana Travel Guide – December 2001
Big Easy Holidays
On Christmas Eve, bonfires line the Mississippi to light Papa Noelâ€™s way down to the bayous. Photo credit: NOTMC/David Richomond
As a city that never takes any celebration lightly, the Big Easy is an interesting and exciting place to be during the holidays. Despite the fact that it could very well be 80 degrees on Christmas morning, New Orleans has one of the biggest light displays in the country along with miles of blazing bonfires, not to mention good times and great food.
A Louisiana tradition for more than 2 centuries, the feux de joie (fires of joy) bonfires are set ablaze to light Santa’s way to the bayous. Along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, locals build teepees, houses, riverboats, and cabins on the levees. Building for more than a month, some of the structures are very elaborate and detailed, rising more than 40 feet in the air. In recent years there have been almost 100 fires burning along the levees. It’s mainly a local event, as they bring out sofas and cook food beside the infernos, but visitors are always welcomed. The fires are ignited at 7pm and usually burn bright until about 10pm. Free. From New Orleans, take 1-10 west for about 45 minutes to Exit #194 onto LA. 3213 for Lutcher and Gramercy. Go for about 3 miles and take a right at the first stoplight onto LA 3125. Go one block then take a left on Hwy. 641. It will take you to River Road. For more info, check out www.stjamesla.com.
Perhaps one of the most enjoyable ways to spend Christmas Eve is to take the Christmas Eve Bonfire Cruise aboard the Creole or Cajun Queen. The boats make the 40-mile cruise up the Mississippi all the way to Gramercy and Lutcher to view the blazing bonfire from the water. The cruises feature a lavish Creole buffet, open bar, and live entertainment. Santa Claus also makes his way around the ship with a gift for everyone on board. Both boats leave around 2:30pm and return at 10pm. Call 1-800-455-4109 or go to www.neworleanspaddlewheels.com for more information. Reservations are required.
The 15th annual Celebration in the Oaks has a 2-mile driving tour that takes visitors through the world’s largest collection of ancient oaks decorated with more than 2 million lights. Near the end of the tour is a 12-acre botanical gardens and a fairy tale-theme park with Christmas carols and nightly concerts as well as an Olympic-size skating rink and a live manger. Local delicacies are available, as well as hot chocolate. It runs from Nov. 23, 2001 to Jan. 6, 2002, nightly from 5:30 to 10:30pm. Tickets are $8 per car, and the self-guided walking tour is $3 per person. Celebration in the Oaks will also reopen for Superbowl visitors Jan. 29 – Feb. 2. For more info go to www.neworleanscitypark.com/cito.
Christmas Caroling in Jackson Square is a 55-year-old tradition that has been attracting thousands every year. Candles and song sheets are provided. Dec. 16, 7pm. Free. There is also caroling the same day in Washington Square (Elysian Fields and Royal Street). At the same time, Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and McDonogh 15 students will join for caroling in Bienville Place Park (Bienville and Decatur) on December 7th and 14th from 1:30 to 3pm. There are also nightly Christmas Concerts Dec. 1 – 23 (except 7, 12, 16, 20) at the St. Louis Cathedral, at 8pm. Free.
With such cultural diversity in the city, New Orleans has a variety of ethnic Christmas celebrations, such as the Holiday on the Boulevard, a celebration of African, Caribbean, and African-American cultures, arts, and crafts. It begins with visits from Baba Kwaanza, John O’Neal, Mama YeYe and Olayeela Daste. It runs on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 and 2. For more information, call Ashe Cultural Center/Efforts of Grace at +1 (504) 569 9070. Celtic Christmas at O’Flaherty’s is also a big ordeal complete with bagpipes, Celtic food, and celebrations. 514 Toulouse Street, +1 (504) 529 1317. The huge French Quarter pub has Celtic Christmas performances from December 12-14 and 19-21, a Celtic Christmas Dinner and Show on December 15 and 22, and a Celtic Christmas Tea and Performance on the 16th and 23rd. For more information, go to www.celticnationsworld.com/oflahertys.htm.
Reveillon Dinners have been growing in popularity in recent years. With a large Catholic population, Christmas in New Orleans has always been a deeply religious affair. In the 18th century when there was no Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and shopping malls, families gathered to feast and drink after midnight mass. As most Catholics had recognized Christmas Eve as a day of fasting and abstinence, everyone was starving by midnight. It was the start of a tradition that would last for more than 200 years in Creole homes. Often a late affair, the women and children were usually gone by 3am while the men stayed until dawn, smoking cigars and sipping cordials. Although the Reveillon was celebrated in some rural homes well into the 60s, its now mainly an excuse for restaurants to have specials in what is usually one of their slowest months. The typical menu is a dinner of four to six courses which will includes various wild game, fresh eggnog, and exotic desserts as well as the famed daue glace. There are 29 restaurants serving the dinners during the month of December. Prices range from $20 to $60 per plate, and Christmas in New Orleans: Reveillon Menus 2001 will tell you more.
A woman dressed as an angel standing outside of St. Louis Cathedral.
New Year’s is also a great time to be in New Orleans with the regular partying in the French Quarter and fireworks displays on the river and in other parts of town. Decatur Street is usually roped off late at night and made into a pedestrian-only party zone complete with live music and beer and food vendors. A New Orleans equivalent to the ball dropping in New York City, a nude baby (left from the World’s Fair in 1984) works its way to the bottom of a pole on top of the Jax Brewery at midnight. No matter where you’re standing, its hard to see the thing, but still a great place to be. The French Quarter becomes packed early in the day and stays that way until late in the night of January 1. Check www.nola.com closer to New Year’s for more information and schedules of events.
Also interesting is the annual New Year’s Jazz Funeral where locals “bury” the old year to make room for the new one. There is usually a large procession that rolls through the French Quarter on the morning or afternoon of Dec. 31. More information will be available later in the month of December.
One New Orleans “tradition” which has been getting unwanted attention is the shooting of guns into the air for midnight. Despite the fact that authorities have been cracking down hard on the offenders, it still remains a problem 5 people were hit on New Year’s Eve 2001. Even the mayor himself once said, “I would take cover at midnight myself, and I know that’s not possible for everyone to do in the French Quarter because of the density of people there… There are risks to being outside. I cannot guarantee anyone’s safety.”
Despite the fact that people are firing automatic weapons in the air and thousands of gunshots can be heard in some neighborhoods, it still all in the luck of the draw who gets hit and should not be considered a major concern. Some locals have even shown up on Bourbon Street with kevlar military helmets, while a local New Year Coalition has been pushing hard to get people to stop the tradition.