Dressed in his chef’s whites, Isaac Pappion sears red snapper filets in a crackling skillet. An eager and hungry crowd watches the chef from the Windsor Court Hotel’s New Orleans Grill move deftly through a mobile kitchen inside The Shops at Canal Place Mall, just steps from the French Quarter, at 333 Canal St.
Above: Carolers will gather in Jackson Square on Dec. 20 in the French Quarter and sing by the light of candles.
Below: The Teddy Bear Tea at the Royal Sonesta Hotel includes a visit with Santa. French Quarter Festivals Inc. photos
Turning from the fish, Pappion whips up a creamy Macque choux, (pronounced mock shoe) a Cajun vegetable side dish with mirlitons, also known as chayote, which is a pear-shaped vegetable.
“You want heavy whipping cream; the kind that’s really bad for you,” he says as he stirs.
The crowd murmurs its approval. Minutes later, Pappion passes out samples of perfectly done snapper. The sauce is velvety and succulent, and happy eaters chow down in the shadow of the mall’s giant Christmas tree.
New Orleans goes all out for the holidays, embracing food, song and holiday spirit with its typical gusto and heartiness. Christmas trees pop up on the narrow lanes of the French Quarter and street musicians swap their jazz and blues standards for Christmas carols. Bourbon Street remains as raucous as ever, and you may bump into a parade of rollicking Santas with Mardi Gras beads draped over their red suits and tangled in their beards.
On the edge of the Quarter, the French Market takes on a Christmas look, and decorated streetcars move up and down Canal Street in the Central Business District.
“So many events are rooted in tradition,” said Marci Schramm, executive director of French Quarter Festivals.
New Orleans’ City Park is ablaze with Christmas lights all month as part of its Celebration in the Oaks, which features carousel rides, a miniature train and an impressive poinsettia display in its botanical garden.
This mixture of events, grand hotels, glorious food and inspiring music comes together for a great holiday weekend in southern Louisiana.
Holiday happenings at hotels
The lobby of the majestic Windsor Court Hotel (300 Gravier St., AAA four Diamond) features a giant Christmas tree encircled by a model train. Afternoon tea is a favorite alongside the tree.
Hotel Monteleone (214 Royal St., AAA four Diamond) is a gathering spot for strolling historical characters who make their way through the Quarter. Stop and chat with Andrew Jackson, Napoleon Bonaparte, John James Audubon, pirate Jean Lafitte, and Papa Noel, the bayou version of Santa Claus. The historic characters are a program of the Louisiana Living History Project.
Other hotels offer programs for families. The Royal Teddy Bear Tea at the Royal Sonesta Hotel (300 Bourbon St., AAA four Diamond) includes a visit with Santa. There’s also breakfast with the jolly old elf at the Bourbon Orleans and a traditional holiday tea party for the dolls at Beauregard-Keyes House on Chartres Street.
The Louisiana Children’s Museum at 420 Julia St. has several holiday programs, including breakfast, a book reading of “The Cajun Gingerbread Boy,” and a photo opportunity with the gingerbread boy on Dec. 5 and 6.
Music is celebrated in the city year-round, but there’s a distinct yuletide quality over the holidays. Caroling in Jackson Square just a few nights before Christmas is a New Orleans tradition that’s more than 60 years old. This year’s event will be held on Dec. 20. Candles and song sheets are provided to the throngs who gather outside St. Louis Cathedral that evening. The cathedral also hosts numerous free evening holiday concerts throughout December. Past performances have included Ellis Marsalis and the Mahalia Jackson Gospel Choir.
Exceptional holiday fare
Food is a big draw to New Orleans for many visitors, and during the holidays, restaurants serve a tasty mélange of French, Caribbean and Southern cuisine.
You will find traditional favorites like gumbo, but many restaurants will offer Reveillon menus. Beginning in the middle 19th century, Reveillon (re1-VAY-yon, which is French for “awakening”) was celebrated by New Orleans’ Creole families twice during the holiday season. It was traditionally served after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve after families returned home to break an all-day fast, and again on New Year’s Eve, which was often a shared dinner among several families.
The lavish Christmas Eve meal would often begin with oysters on the half-shell and typically featured egg dishes and Creole sweetbreads. The finale was a delicious cake filled with fruit compote, soaked with wine or rum and topped with whipped cream.
Learn more about the history of Reveillon at the Gallier House Museum (1132 Royal St.) and take a tour of a restored 19th–century French Quarter home. The dining room will be bedecked in Victorian splendor, while guides give descriptions of the holiday feast.
Experience Reveillon today at one of many city restaurants, including favorites such as Antoine’s (713 St. Louis St., AAA three Diamond), Commander’s Palace (1403 Washington, AAA four Diamond) or Galatoire’s (209 Bourbon St., AAA two Diamond). There’s a long procession of dishes that may include shrimp remoulade, soft-shell crab, or the famous Reveillon salad with caramel-braised apples, grilled onions and gingerbread croutons. The list of Reveillon desserts will make any diner dizzy.
Before leaving town, try a fabulous three-course brunch at Brennan’s (417 Royal St., AAA three Diamond). The famous Eggs Hussard followed by Bananas Foster are recommended.
Outside the city
Take a drive from New Orleans and explore other parts of southern Louisiana to check out a unique holiday tradition: the Festival of the Bonfires. Held each year in Lutcher in St. James Parish–the heart of Louisiana’s plantation country–nightly bonfires along the Mississippi River light the way for Papa Noel. Cajun food and music complement the bonfires. Carolers paddle along the river in canoes or on nearby Bayou St. John. Gray Line Tours in New Orleans has a Christmas Eve motorcoach excursion that includes bonfire viewing, a plantation tour and Cajun meal.
In Vacherie, the magnificent Oak Alley Plantation hosts its annual Christmas Bonfire Party (7 p.m.–midnight Dec. 5) with guides in antebellum dresses, music, Creole and Cajun food, and of course, the bonfire.
Christmas in southern Louisiana is wonderful. Treat yourself and your family to a holiday weekend in the Crescent City.
Michael Ream is a contributor from Des Moines, Iowa.