New Orleans’ deep sense of culture and thriving music scene makes it a place that people love to visit. While Mardi Gras is a time when people flock to the city, any time of year is a great for vacationing in the old Big Easy; and at Christmas it’s lit up with wonder.
If you are thinking of making New Orleans your holiday destination, here are some things you won’t want to miss when you visit.
Bonfires on the Levee
New Orleans is a city full of culture and tradition. One tradition that has lasted the test of time is the lighting of bonfires along the Mississippi River on Christmas Eve. Many say these fires are lit to guide ‘Papa Noel’, the Cajun Santa Claus, on his journey across the city. Others say they light the path to the nearest church for Midnight Mass.
The bonfires are lit from long logs formed into a pyramid shape that can be as high as 20 feet. At around 7 PM, people gather at dusk to set the structures alight. They are commonly found at St. James Parish (which is 30-40 miles outside of New Orleans) and adjoining communities like Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina.
Candlelight Caroling in Jackson Square
Jackson Square is a historic park located in the French Quarter. Once a year, right around Christmastime, the public gathers there to sing Christmas carols. Professionals and amateurs can join in the fun and hundreds of candles and song sheets are provided.
As a multi-cultural city, New Orleans makes sure their Jewish friends also enjoy the holidays. One must see event is “Latkes with a Twist” which is brought to the public by the Jewish Regions Children Service. The Washington Post named it as one of America’s most amazing holiday parties. Guests can enjoy a menorah lighting and live folk music while noshing on latkes and other Hanukkah favorites.
The African holiday of Kwanzaa is also honored in the city. Check in with the New Orleans Kwanzaa Coalition to find out what they have in store. They typically host a series of events which include candle lighting, dancing, drumming, poetry, music, features, job fairs and the wearing of colorful clothing.
Celebration in the Oaks
This over thirty-year-old city tradition marks City Park’s largest fundraiser. During the event, the park’s famous oaks are decked out in millions of lights. Guests can take in breathtaking views while walking or driving the 2.25 miles of the park. The ‘Who Dat’ tree is a must see for Saints fans.
Holiday Home and Mansion Tours
New Orleans is full of beautiful architecture and historic mansions that date back to plantation days. The best collection of Antebellum Mansions is located along the Mississippi River just outside of New Orleans. However, there are also mansions located in the French Quarter and Garden District. You can take a bus tour or rent a car to drive through and see them all.
There are also Holiday Home Tours available. These tours include a viewing of five to ten houses that you can step inside to find them dressed up in their holiday best.
Note: As New Orleans is known for its voodoo culture, there are also plenty of haunted mansion tours available. I’m not sure how holiday appropriate these will be, but I know I wouldn’t want to leave the city without attending one.
See a Holiday Show
As a performing arts hub, you can expect New Orleans to be packed with venues. Two holiday traditions include the showing of the Nutcracker at the Orpheum Theater. Or, if you prefer something more modern, you can check out the Hip Hop Nutcracker at the Saenger.
NOLA Christmasfest at the Convention Center
NOLA Christmasfest promises to be the closest you can get to a winter wonderland in Louisiana. During the event, the Convention Center transforms into a holiday dreamworld with ice skating, ice slides, holiday characters, amusement rides and inflatables. It is the region’s only indoor Christmas festival.
Sailing with Santa Cruise on the Steamboat Natchez
The Steamboat Natchez cruises the Mississippi regularly offering a laid-back experience that allows guests to enjoy the sights, drink tasty craft cocktails and listen to jazz music. It’s Sailing with Santa Cruise adds to the fun because, well, Santa’s onboard.
The Sailing with Santa Cruise doubles as a fundraising event. It is free for everyone who brings a toy to be donated to the New Orleans Family Justice Center. Lunch is available for purchase.
Teddy Bear Tea at the Roosevelt
The Roosevelt is a historic inspired hotel that defined luxury in the 1900’s and continues its high-end standards in modern day times. Every year they host a Teddy Bear Tea that includes holiday food, specialty teas, delicious pastries and cocktails for mom and dad. Seats must be reserved in advance and the event tends to sell out.
New Orleans is a great place to shop for gifts that represent the culture of the city. The French Quarter is lined with shops. Be sure to check out the Arts Warehouse District and Magazine Street as well.
Reveillon dinners are a Crescent City tradition that started in the 1900’s. Reveillon means awakening and the dinner kicked off the Christmas celebration as a multi-course meal to be eaten after the family came home from midnight mass (that’s right, they often commenced at 2 AM).
The meals consisted of chicken, oyster gumbo, game pies, soups, souffles, extraordinary desserts, brandy and coffee.
Although these traditional dinners died out in the 1940’s, they were revived in the 1990’s and are often served at some of New Orleans’ best restaurants. And fortunately, they have been moved to a more convenient time of day!
If you are thinking of traveling this Christmas, New Orleans is a great destination. Which of these activities will you be putting on your to-do list when you arrive?