In most of America, folks celebrate Christmas Day by getting up early, opening presents, going to church, then sitting down to a midday meal that’s not all that different from the one they had a month earlier on Thanksgiving. In New Orleans, we do things a bit differently, and the food is usually a lot better.
To understand Christmas in New Orleans, one must understand what it is to be Catholic in New Orleans. Being a Catholic whose roots extend back to France, Spain, and the Caribbean, one has equal amounts of faith, devotion, and mischief — faith that the Pope and his bishops are God’s representatives on earth. And devotion to God is evident in the magnificent New Orleans churches Catholics built across the city.
Then there’s mischief. New Orleans was not founded by descendants of Puritans and other strict Protestant denominations of Christianity. Their relationship with God was somewhat more personal, and while they respected many (but not all) of the Church’s leaders, they still looked for shortcuts. Creoles read the letter of the law, then figured out how to do it their way anyway; celebrating Christmas is one of those experiences. The rules of the Church specified that the faithful had to fast from midnight on Saturday night until after mass if they wanted to receive Holy Communion. Europeans solved the problem early on in the middle ages; if you can’t eat until after mass, then have mass at midnight! Once mass was finished, the “awakening” – the Réveillon – could begin. Start the feasting!
Hors d’oeuvres were served first, while mom (who zipped home ahead of the rest of the family from mass) began to assemble the rest of the meal. Then, while the entrees and sides were in the final stages of production, the family and guests would enjoy a rich soup, perhaps classic Creole Turtle Soup, maybe a creamy oyster-artichoke creation, or even crab bisque. Now that mom had bought sufficient time, the entrees would come together. They would usually be “made” dishes, such as grillades (veal in a rich, dark roux), or a duck casserole. The idea was to make something that could be prepared before going to Midnight Mass, then could slow-cook, or be re-heated when the family returned from church. If grandpa’s digestion couldn’t tolerate dishes that were too rich, the family tradition might include grits, eggs, and other “brunch” food.
Like all too many Creole traditions, Réveillon as a home/family event began to fade. Catholics continued to dominate the culture of New Orleans, but the English influences coming down the river from Memphis and St. Louis, and up the river into the port from New York and Baltimore, began to sweep over the city. Soon, Christmas was less about Midnight Mass and more about waking up early on Christmas morning. Fast forward through two World Wars, and by then the world has television and the notion of having the family Christmas feast at 2 a.m. is as foreign as Iberville and Bienville. Still, you can’t take the “Creole” out of Christmas for many NOLA families; they serve duck instead of turkey, oyster stuffing instead of cornbread, and tasty casseroles for side dishes instead of plain, steamed vegetables.
The world changed, and New Orleanians with it, but we didn’t forget our roots. Christmas Eve vigil mass became more popular than the one at midnight in many parishes, but there’s something genetic about our love for delicious food. Mom doesn’t have time to cook quite like her antebellum ancestors, and that created an opportunity for local restaurants. Dozens of restaurants across town offer a Réveillon Menu during December. Most of these dinners are prix-fixe offerings, with a choice of a couple of soups (turtle, duck-andouille gumbo, and corn-and-crab bisque are popular) and salads, followed by some very creative seafood and duck entrees. The prices range from $40-$80 per person, excluding beverages. Each restaurant usually offers a specialty dessert, but also includes classics like creme brulee and bread pudding, along with good, strong, New Orleans chicory coffee.
Enjoy some New Orleans faith, devotion, and mischief. Celebrate the Réveillon!
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is available at bookstores and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.