Southern Traveler
h Home h Features h Departments h Web Bonus h Media Info h Reader Resources h Archives h space


Feliz Navidad, Y'all

Experience Spanish holiday traditions in St. Bernard parish,
where the Los Isleņos' culture thrives.

“America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans.
 Everywhere else is Cleveland.” 
– Tennessee Williams

With apologies to Mr. Williams (and to Cleveland, Ohio), there’s a lot of Louisiana to explore beyond our beloved Crescent City. Take St. Bernard Parish, for example. One of Louisiana’s largest parishes by total area, St. Bernard is just about a half-hour’s drive from the French Quarter. A rich history and diverse Creole culture are found in St. Bernard, which unfurls many of its traditions during the Christmas season.

“Whether you were French, Spanish, Native American or African in the 18th century, what bound the Creole identity was the use of the French language,” said St. Bernard historian William de Marigny Hyland.

First, Spain

Spanish, not French, explorers were first to colonize this part of Louisiana. In fact, St. Bernard was settled in 1778 by Spanish colonists from the Canary Islands. Known as “Los Isleños,” these settlers fished, hunted, and worked the sugar plantations. Today’s St. Bernard population is around 42,000 with nearly 2⁄3 of its people tracing their ancestry at least in part to the Canary Islands. It’s these Isleños descendants who work diligently to preserve their heritage for generations to come.

Los Isleños recount Canarian stories with great detail and welcome visitors to tour their 22-acre village of historical buildings and exhibits, Los Isleños Museum and Village (1345 Bayou Road).
It is open Wednesday–Sunday.

“When people come here, we want them to see these buildings and understand them as vestiges of an evolved culture that originated in Spain and the Canary Islands,” Hyland says.

Garlands of Spanish moss drape live oaks and water oaks, a common site in St. Bernard. There’s a certain calm in the air only felt in the bayou country as Los Isleños Society board members and historians, Melanie Ybarzabal-Koons and Jerry Estopinal join Hyland to share stories of their people in this village.

Starting at the Frank Fernandez Isleños Center, named after a lifetime educator and former parish historian, Estopinal points to the property’s maiden building beyond the oaks, now home to the Ducros Historical Museum and Library. The replica 19th-century Creole cottage survived Hurricane Katrina’s fury.

Next door at the Coconut Island Bar, Ybarzabal-Koons shows off the original 1920s bar, where cases of Regal Beer were found when they moved the building from its original site two miles away. Prior to its 1950s shuttering, the bar attracted bands from New Orleans to play here. The list of performers reads like a Hall of Fame roster with the likes of Fats Domino and the Louisiana Five.

“There were lots of these bars at one time,” she said. “It’s where everyone met. There were spirits, food, and dancing.”

Across the way and surrounded by a miniature bayou is the Calvin A. Melerine replica trapper’s cabin. A Louisiana trapper’s life in the swamp reveals how hunting for creatures such as muskrats and mink sustained his family. Often, the entire family would stay in these single-room dwellings for months at a time.

The Estopinal House was built around 1790 by the Spanish government. A family tree displayed in the parlor includes Albert Estopinal Sr., a sugar cane planter who served as a Democrat in the Louisiana State Senate, as lieutenant governor, and as a U.S. Congressman. The home also boasts a detached kitchen with artifacts suggesting how daily routines might have looked.

There are several other attractions along the way, including a nature trail and palmetto hut paying homage to St. Bernard’s original residents, the Houma Nation. Even though colonization would prove unkind to Native Americans, the Houmas were granted land in St. Bernard by the Spanish administration of the 1790s, which prevented Indian slavery.

Christmas traditions

Los Isleños culture is reflected during Christmas traditions at the village.

“We don’t have elves, we just have the Serpas and the Ybarzabals,” said Estopinal of the families who transform the museum complex with holiday decorations.

The Los Isleños community enjoys an old-fashioned Christmas inspired by childhood memories, complete with Belén (Spanish for Bethlehem), an illuminated Canarian-inspired nativity scene.
Starting Thanksgiving week and continuing through Jan. 6, Ybarzabal-Koons said there’s not a spot in the historical village that doesn’t have lights.

The Los Isleños Christmas bonfire will be Dec. 2 from 3:30–7:30 p.m. Other events throughout the parish include Christmas at the Complex on Dec. 1; Yuletide at the Malus-Beauregard House and Santa on the Bayou on Dec. 9; and Wreaths Across America on Dec. 16 at Chalmette Battlefield.

Still, it’s the huge bonfire that steals the show.

“To some Isleños, it’s the most important holiday there is, and to some it’s just about fire,” Estopinal said.

The southern Louisiana tradition of lighting bonfires along the Mississippi River on Christmas Eve is thought to be a way to light the way for Papa Noël. These also provided a lit path to the nearest churches for Midnight Mass.

Folks today flock to this Christmas Eve spectacle, so New Orleans traffic can get tricky. There’s private parking within walking distance, or opt for a Gray Line motor coach tour that leaves from New Orleans’ Toulouse Street. Regardless of transportation choice, arriving early is highly recommended.

America may be considered the world’s melting pot, but the culture of south Louisiana’s Creoles is as rich as a steaming pot of jambalaya.

Melissa Corbin is a contributor from Nashville, Tenn.


Mark your calendar for March 3 and 4, 2018, for Los Isleños Fiesta. Celebrate two full days of Canary Island traditions, food, dance, and music on the grounds of Los Isleños Museum and Village.

For more information, contact the St. Bernard Parish Office of Tourism, (504) 278-4242 or

To visit St. Bernard Parish, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, and TourBook® guides. Visit for a TripTik® Travel Planner.

Order free information about Louisiana through the Free Information Card found online.

Ponche de Leche recipe

Los Isleños historian William de Marigny Hyland recommends using a good Brandy de Jerez, but rum or bourbon could easily be substituted. Remember to drink responsibly and never drive after consuming alcohol.

½ ounce simple syrup (1 cup sugar, 1 cup water, boil to dissolve sugar, and then chill)
1 ½ ounces brandy
3 ounces milk

Fill shaker with ice, brandy, simple syrup, and milk. Shake to chill and strain into punch glass. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg. •

Nov/Dec 2017 Issue

Music is part of Los Isleños celebrations around the holidays and at the fiesta held in spring. The next Los Isleños Fiesta will be March 3 and 4, 2018. James Gaffney



^ to top | previous page