The Cajun Cheesehead Christmas Chronicles
[Originally posted 03/26/2011]
Jerry Reed’s Amos Moses
I digress. (You should be used to that by now.) Anyhow, Louisiana being what it is—own language, parishes instead of counties, different legal system, best food on the planet—it should not come as a great surprise that there are unique ways of observing the Christmas season that are found only there.
You should understand that New Orleans and south Louisiana is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic. It’s the Christmas Season down there, not the “Holiday Season.” That doesn’t mean we leave out our Jewish friends, as you will see.
You should also understand that there is a difference between New Orleans and Cajun Country. New Orleans is the cosmopolitan, almost European, major city in the state. To the south and west stretch the swamps, farms, and prairies where the country folk—Cajuns—reside. They are different from New Orleanians, and they will be the first to tell you that.
Because they are overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is a big deal there. Really big. Standing-room-only big. Go-to-Mass-twice-a-year big. Everyone goes home to prepare for the visit by Santa, otherwise known as Père Noël or Papa Noel. Often James Rice’s Cajun Night Before Christmas is read:
Den out on de bayou dey got such a clatter…
Make soun’ like old Boudreaux done fall off his ladder.
I run like a rabbit to got to de do’…
Trip over de dawg an’ fall on de flo’!
As I look out de do’ in de light o’ de moon,
I t’ink, “Manh, you crazy, or got ole too soon.”
Cuz dere on de bayou when I stretch ma’ neck stiff…
Dere’s eight alligator a-pullin’ de skiff…
An’ a little fat drover wit’ a lone polein’ stick…
I know r’at away got to be ole St. Nick.
Mo’ fas’er an’ fas’er de ‘gator dey came.
He whistle an’ holler an’ call dem by name:
Ha, Pierre an’ Alcee!
Celeste an’ Renee!”
To de top o’ de porch dem ole ‘gator clime!
Wit’ de skiff full o’ toy an’ St. Nicklus behin’.
Upriver from New Orleans, in the parishes of St. James and St. John the Baptist, bonfires have been lit on the river levee since the mid-1800s. According to Marcia Gaudet’s Tales from the Levee, the bonfires in Louisiana originated with the Marist priests at Jefferson College in Convent.
“These French priests began building and lighting bonfires on the batture (levee) on New Year’s Eve, a tradition they had known in France. Years later, the tradition was moved to Christmas Eve and the fires were built on the levee.”
The fires were constructed as a tall four-sided pyre with timbers laid log-cabin style and fueled by any kind of trash which was stacked in the middle. They used to be forty feet high, until some collapsed. Now they are restricted to twenty feet. The building of fires is elaborate and very competitive. Teams of young men organize themselves year after year to build the biggest and most unique fire. The structures range from life-sized, fully equipped oil rigs to forts. Competition between the groups is so strong that often the teams post 24-hour guard during the week of construction so to guard against the possibility of arson or sabotage.
To see the bonfires on the levee, drive along the Mississippi River levee between New Orleans and Baton Rouge after dark on Christmas Eve.
Celebrations in the Crescent City are more sedate, with a Victorian feel to them. Houses along St. Charles Avenue are decorated and lit, but in a tasteful, restrained manner. Celebration in the Oaks at City Park is a festive display of nearly two million lights decorating one-hundred-year-old oak trees. Ride a horse-drawn carriage through the park or travel by foot or car. Christmas concerts are held at St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter and at the plantations homes lining the Mississippi River, like Oak Alley.
Since this is New Orleans, food is all-important. Réveillon dinners, special four and five course prix fixe menus served only during the Advent season, are available at most of the restaurants in town. Lately, Bûche de Noel, a French Christmas cake shaped like a log, have become popular.
There are Christmas observances all over the state. People come from all over the view Natchitoches Christmas Festival of Lights, where the entire downtown of this north Louisiana city is festooned with over 300,000 lights. It is the longest-running part of the Holiday Trail of Lights, with similar displays in Shreveport and Bossier City, Louisiana, and Marshall, Jefferson, and Kilgore, Texas.
Advent is a wonderful time to visit New Orleans and Cajun Country. The weather is mild and pleasant, and because there are no big conventions or sporting events in town (except for the New Orleans Bowl), rooms are very reasonable. Things start getting crazy again after Christmas, with the run-up to the Sugar Bowl and Carnival.
The best thing about Christmas in Louisiana is that it is NOT done for tourists. The locals put on these celebrations and displays for themselves. While they are very happy to share with visitors, they would do these things even if no one outside of the community came. It is part and parcel of who Louisianians are. It is real—just like the great people of the great state of Louisiana.
Come on down, y’all! You’ll pass us a good time, I gar-on-tee!
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