Even though we don’t have the colorful foliage and snow-covered vistas of the north that make such wonderful paintings, postcards, and now, Instagram pics, New Orleans takes the winter holiday season very seriously. We’ve been all about this time of year for the almost-300 year history of the city. Here are nine traditions with a rich New Orleans history.
1. Midnight Mass
Having been founded by the French, then owned by the Spanish, New Orleans was officially a Catholic colony for the century before the Americans took ownership. The Catholic influence extended out of the Vieux Carré, into the “American Sector,” as Irish and German immigrants arrived. The numbers of Catholics continued to grow throughout the 19th Century, with a huge boost from Sicilian immigrants after the Civil War. While many of these Europeans didn’t get along with each other at times (for example, they all built their own churches and ran their own parishes), they shared a common faith, and they shared Christmas. The devout wanted to celebrate the birth of Christ as soon as they could, so the various parishes continued the centuries old tradition of Midnight Mass. From St. Louis Cathedral, to St. Mary’s Italian in the Quarter, the two churches in the “Redemptorist Parish,” further uptown to Holy Name of Jesus, as well as many churches in between, Catholic families made sure the kids took a decent nap on Christmas Eve, so they’d stay awake for Mass at Midnight. The churches were decorated with holiday finery, elaborate Navitity sets were displayed, and the parish choir strutted their stuff for a couple of hours. With the devotions and obligations out of the way, everyone headed home for food and presents.
The churches opened the doors for Midnight Mass as early as 10 p.m. on Christmas Eve, and the service itself would take a couple of hours. Combine that with the old Catholic rules about fasting before Holy Communion, and there were a lot of hungry people receiving those final blessings and greeting neighbors before heading back to the house. Joyous they were, but, hey — they were hungry New Orleanians. The French had the perfect strategy to deal with this situation: Réveillon, the “awakening.” While dad and the kids dallied on the steps of the church, the moms often ducked out fast so they could get everything ready for a feast when the family made it back. Classic Réveillon dinners were usually “made” dishes, things like stews, ragouts, soups — food that could sit on the stove and were easily re-headed when everyone got back from Mass. The meal would start with some hors d’oeuvres while mom got things going in the kitchen, then came the dinner. After lingering at the table (nobody had to go to work, so there was no rush for the meal), the family would then sleep in and relax. Local restaurants keep the Réveillon tradition alive, offering traditional prix-fixe/table d’hote dinners during the holiday season featuring classic Creole dishes.
Making a “joyful noise” comes easy in New Orleans. Gathering to make music is a year-round tradition here, but it’s even more special during the holiday season. In New Orleans’ history families would sing at home, but many would follow the traditions of their home countries, gathering to sing their particular Christmas carols. Like anything in the gumbo of people that is the Crescent City, the most popular songs from the various homelands rose to the top, giving us the classics playlists we all know and enjoy. The professional musicians, who busked for tips year-round, as well as “tail-gating” (riding around in wagons to advertise their nighttime gigs at dance halls, ballparks, and other venues) shifted to carols as well. The historic tradition is strong, as crowds gather in Jackson Square every year for the Patio Planters’ annual caroling event.
4. Shopping on Canal Street
In the generations before shopping malls existed, people went to the city center to do their retail shopping. Those shopping trips were always special at holiday time, since families would dig a little deeper to buy a few special things for each other. In New Orleans, downtown shopping meant taking the streetcar or bus to Canal Street. D.H. Holmes, Godchaux’s, Gus Mayer, Marks Isaacs, Maison Blanche, Goldrings, and many of New Orleans’ other fine stores have vanished, but shopping on Canal Street is alive and well. The Downtown Development District has lured many national-brand stores to Canal Street since the demise of the local department stores and with Canal Place and the Outlet Collection at the Riverwalk along the river, the tradition of downtown shopping lives on.
5. Mister Bingle
From 1897 to 1997, Maison Blanche was one of the classic department stores of Canal Street. The store’s building lives on as the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans hotel, but the most-visible legacy of “MB” is a small, winged snow elf, Mister Bingle. In the 1940s, the manager of store displays for MB was Emile Alline. On a trip to Chicago after World War II, Alline noticed that Nieman-Marcus had created their own Christmas character, “Uncle Mistletoe.” He returned to New Orleans with sketches of a snowman who had wings made of holly leaves and an ice cream cone hat. Store executives loved it, and suggested the name have a direct connection to the store. They decided to call the little guy “Mister Bingle,” to tie him to MB. Mr. Bingle made his debut in print advertising in 1947, and as a puppet in 1948. As television grew in popularity, Mr. Bingle (whose voice and movements came from puppeteer Oscar Isentrout) appeared daily on kids cartoons on WDSU-TV. From 1948 until the store closed, part of the downtown shopping experience from Thanksgiving to Christmas was a trip to Maison Blanche to see Mister Bingle.
The little guy’s last incarnation at Maison Blanche was a giant, fiberglass Bingle that was mounted on the front of the Canal Street store. When Dillard’s acquired the MB stores in the 2000s, that chain tried to put the big Bingle on their store in Lakeside Mall in Metairie, but it just wasn’t the same. Mr. Bingle was placed in storage, but eventually Dillard’s donated him to City Park, where he is one of the most popular displays there, for Celebration in the Oaks.
6. Christmas Lights
Before the arrival of cheap Christmas decorations in the big-box stores, home displays were much more subdued than we see now. Not only were the lights themselves more expensive, the electricity used to power them had to be paid for. As a result, many houses might only have non-electric decorations on display, or perhaps one or two small electric pieces in the front windows. Families with a bit more financial means, such as the Centannis,who lived on Canal Street in Mid City, would pick up the slack, lighting up their lovely home each year. As Peggy Scott Laborde describes in her wonderful book, Christmas in New Orleans, Salvador “Sal” Centanni, and his wife, Myra Collins Centanni, owned Gold Seal Creamery, a local dairy. One of their ways of saying thank-you to the city for their financial success was to go all-out with decorations on the house and front lawn. The Centannis started decorating their home after WWII, in 1946, just about the time Mr. Bingle became a big deal. They continued the displays until 1966. By that time, many of the New Orleans kids who grew up with stopping by the Centanni house as part of their family traditions had moved to Metairie and St. Bernard. They would string lights on their suburban homes, and, as inexpensive lawn decorations began to appear in the stores, they did their best to pay tribute to the Centannis in their own way. One of the young men influenced by the Centanni house was the late Al Copeland, founder of the Popeyes fried chicken chain and many New Orleans restaurants. After Mrs. Centanni passed and the family no longer decorated the Canal Street home, Copeland began to elaborately decorate and light his Metairie home. Many of the decorations from Copeland’s home were later donated to Lafreniere Park in Metairie, so New Orleanians can enjoy not only Celebration in the Oaks in City Park, but the lights in the surburbs, as well.
The winter h0liday season is not just about Christmas. New Orleans has had a vibrant and exciting Jewish community for centuries. In particular, not all the immigrants from Germany that came here were Christian. Like the other communities in town, Jews in New Orleans formed bonds, built houses of worship, and became part of our wonderful gumbo. So, while the Catholics and other Christians prepare for Christ, the Jews celebrate the Festival of Lights. Celebration in the Oaks recognizes this important part of our city, with a huge lighted Menorah, as well as other displays.
8. Bonfires for Papa Noel
When the French, Spanish, and Germans left their homelands for Louisiana, it was only natural for the children to worry if Papa Noel/St. Nicholas/Santa Claus would find them in the New World. It’s tough for parents to convince them that their fears of abandonment were unfounded, but some enterprising families would take extra steps to placate the kids. To make sure Papa Noel knew the way to New Orleans, folks would build big bonfires to light his way to the city, offering good landing zones for the reindeer. As the city grew out, both up- and downriver from Canal Street and the French Quarter, the notion of building huge fires near populated neighborhoods became a concern. The bonfires continued upriver, in the “River Parishes” of St. Charles, St. John, St. James, and Ascension, and down the bayous into Cajun Country. Many folks from the city, as well as holiday visitors can make their way up river road on either side of the Mississippi to see these wonderful burning displays, on the nights leading up to Christmas Eve.
9. Dinner at Your Momma’s House
Celebrating Christmas/Hanukkah/Yule/Kwanzaa — even Festivus — is all about family. In New Orleans, that means going over to your momma’s house. That sometimes changed from your momma’s to maybe your aunt’s, after mom passed, and eventually, you or one of your siblings inherited the mantle of “momma’s house” for the next generation. Sometimes the gathering stays in the same place for generations; for some families, it started in the 9th Ward, moved to Lakeview, and now is out in Chateau Estates. Some families get dispersed to other cities, but still gather at local restaurants to celebrate the season. No matter how you do it, New Orleans stays in your heart when it stays in the family.
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. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, is now available in bookstores and online. Edward is also the NOLA History Guy, online and on Twitter (@NOLAHistoryGuy).