Christmastime and the Holidays In New Orleans
When it comes to celebrating Christmas and the holidays, I can’t imagine another major city that goes as all out, like New Orleans, Louisiana.
From the first time we spent Christmas in The Big Easy in the past, to spending Christmastime just recently, it’s always been the most magical of trips ever.
NOLA, (New Orleans, Louisiana) as it’s known to locals, has never needed a reason to party. They have more festivals than anywhere in the world. If they can think of a reason for people to come together and celebrate, they find an occasion. So, you can count on the holidays being something amazing, and that they are.
The city has so many traditions you most likely won’t find elsewhere. Take for instance Santa Claus. There he’s known as Papa Noel, and instead of reindeer, his sled is pulled by alligators.
Their mascot this time of year? Well, that would be “Mr. Bingle” who if you ask my wife Nicole, I’ve become obsessed with; but the kid in me feels differently. Mr. Bingle has become a pop culture icon, so I must not be the only one.
Mr. Bingle is a snowman who is another of Santa’s little helpers. He wears a sugar ice cream cone as a hat, with holly wings and a candy cane always in his hand. Originally created by the Maison Blanche Department Store in the 1940’s, now the home of The Ritz-Carlton, you’ll find him here during the season and many other places around town, so keep your eye out.
How about tea-time? Not just any old tea but Teddy Bear Tea where families gather, bringing their children to enjoy a proper tea with traditional food and festive holiday music. Mrs. Clause reads stories followed by a visit with Santa himself. Several of the city’s famed hotels feature holiday tea, but if you want your family to enjoy it, book a spot early, as they tend to sell out early.
Do you like caroling? How about having thousands of people filling Jackson Square, with lit candles, singing tune after tune? That’s how it’s done here.
Bonfires? Oh yes, they have that covered too. With gigantic structures built along the Mississippi, then lit ablaze. Traditionally to help light the path for Santa to the city for all its good boys and girls.
One of our favorites? That would be the Celebration of the Oaks held in City Park. Just outside the French Quarter, one of the most beautiful spots in the area, they decorate parts of the mammoth park, lighting centuries-old Live Oak trees, with colorful displays. There’s even a miniature train you can ride to experience it all and of course, another destination you’ll want to reserve way in advance.
These are just a few of the many unique ways the Crescent City celebrates the holidays. For us, we soak up all we can. From learning the history of the city with special Cajun Christmas Private Tours, to indulging in the most tantalizing food and cocktails, to simply walking everywhere, seeing the way this town transforms itself.
It truly transforms like no other large city in America. I say large, because sure, there are a bunch of small towns known to turn into little Christmas Villages. But New Orleans, from the French Quarter with its grand homes and horse-drawn carriages that traverse its streets, from Jackson Square, to the Garden District and the Streetcars that travel there, to the Steamboats going up and down the Mississippi, to its historic parks, they’re all decorated.
I mentioned Private Tours. Each visit to town on our first full day, we meet up with Andrew from Free Tours By Foot. He’ll always show us places we’ve somehow never seen or take us to places we thought we knew well until he gives us a lesson in history we’ll never forget.
On this recent trip, he took us on a Cajun Christmas tour. We learned more than ever before about the town’s deep Christmas roots, its traditions, and how they honor and celebrate this time of year, now and years went by. They even have some great Christmas shops where you can stock up on uniquely New Orleans decorations.
One of our favorite traditions is that of a few of the city’s most beautiful hotels. Decorating the way only a child could dream up. For countless decades three have become the go-to spots for locals and tourists alike. The Roosevelt, The Royal Sonesta, and The Ritz-Carlton.
When you think of the term, “Deck the Halls,” then this landmark hotel, The Roosevelt should be on your list. To say they decorate their grand corridor and several other areas, including the famous Sazerac Bar is using the term lightly. If you explore, you’ll find their Gingerbread village.
Glowing with lit Christmas trees as far down the corridor as the eye can see, bright white lights are perfectly placed everywhere. It does get busy, but it’s a stop you must make and tends to be less crowded earlier in the morning.
The Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street is another iconic hotel whose decor does not disappoint. Throughout their lobby and vast hallway, Christmas trees and decorations set the holiday mood, with the icing on the cake being the amazing scents. This hotel is home to one of the biggest Teddy Bear Teas, Reveillon dinner spots at R’evolution, and the traditional Lighting of the Balconies. The latter is when the community gathers along with Bourbon, and with one switch, their balconies light up in Christmas colors.
The last, and by far not the least, is where we stayed on our recent trip and last few visits, The Ritz-Carlton located on Canal Street. This majestic hotel is also transformed into pure Holiday Magic. Notably, each year features the town’s largest Gingerbread House. The previous year? A full-size Gingerbread Streetcar!
And, this past Christmas, that would be a Gingerbread Tugboat. And yes, always making an appearance on it, is Mr. Bingle.
There’s no spot where you won’t soak up the holidays. From any entrance, whether on Canal…
to the valet in the garage…
the main lobby, their beautiful courtyard…
to the Davenport Lounge. Yes, as in Jazz legend Jeremy Davenport whom you can see most Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights. We finally had the chance to spend some time with him in between his festive sets.
The sheer beauty of Christmastime is on full display everywhere in New Orleans. It’s difficult not to get in the Holiday Spirit. Of course, the hotels are decorated to the nines, welcoming visitors this time of year from all over. But its residents especially feel it. The stunning homes are adorned with everything from simple to elaborate decorations.
As if the style of homes here doesn’t already take you back a century or two, the holidays give you that chance to know what it was like without physically going back in time.
I mentioned Reveillon dinners. A New Orleans tradition going back to the early 19th century. “Reveillon” or “awakening”, was created by Creoles celebrating the start of Christmas as they returned from Midnight Mass. Through the centuries and modern-day, these dinners with family in the home now are featured at the city’s top-tier restaurants.
One such place we’ve enjoyed a couple of times is R’evolution at the Royal Sonesta as I previously mentioned. Considered by many to be the town’s number one newer restaurant.
Gourmet meets the holidays!
If you’re looking for more classic NOLA fare, I can’t say enough about Brennan’s. It’s a staple of ours and every local. Decorated in every nook and cranny, the only thing better than the decor is of course the food. We don’t miss coming for Breakfast At Brennan’s every trip, and their dinners will have you returning as often as we do. You can even find Saint Nick here, opening bottles of champagne for their Christmas Sabering.
All the Brennan’s family restaurants are done up for the Holidays, with each location placed at your table, Christmas bells with colored ribbons matching the restaurant. At Brennan’s we received their famed pink ones, at Ralph’s the light green color, and at Dickie Brennan’s Tableau they were royal blue.
In fact, this recent trip we finally made it to Ralph Brennan’s, Ralph’s On The Park. Located directly across from New Orleans City Park, with stunning views of the Live Oaks, sits a semi-recent addition of Ralph’s. As with every one of Brennan’s restaurants, the service, food, and definitely the atmosphere with its wonderful decorations make it an unforgettable visit.
It’s not just the food here and everywhere in town, but the cocktails. Take for example the “Peppermint Milk Punch” I had. Made with sugar, cream, vanilla, and crushed peppermint. Out of this world!
It’s the holidays, so Ralph’s was giving back all month. If you purchase one of their “December Cocktail for a Cause” they’ll donate to a featured charity. Nicole ordered the “Champagne in the Oaks” which, was not only terrific, but we were helping those in need, with a donation going to the Ronald McDonald House. That’s the kind of town New Orleans is.
Of course, I can’t leave out the restaurant I have been coming to each visit for four decades now, and with Nicole each visit too, Arnaud’s. When a restaurant has been around for over 100 years, well, you know they honor the town’s traditions with great pride. Impeccable service, outstanding food, and a Christmas feel to make sure you’re in the mood. This might be due to their giant Teddy Bear.
Even if you’re looking for a traditional cocktail, head over to the Sazerac House on Canal Street. There you can take a free historic tour of the facility, learn about NOLA drinks, and even sample a complimentary Sazerac. And yes, it’s decorated for the Holidays.
Christmas and the Holidays can be hectic times. Sometimes it’s even difficult to enjoy while we all get so wrapped up in it all. So, my suggestion? Do as we do, take a week, or just a few days, and head down to The Big Easy. It’s called that because here, you can relax, take it easy, decompress and most importantly, remember what the holidays are truly all about.