Crazy as this city is normally, at Christmas we really like to go all out. As any New Orleanian knows, the Yuletide season is just another reason to have a party, bring together those large Catholic families for marathon food fests, and take the kids out to look at all the Christmas lights.
We do seem to have a tradition of spiffing up our neighborhoods for Christmas in an unusually big way. New Orleanians crave spectacles more than your average city-dweller, something to do with our addiction to purple-green-and-gold bunting. I remember my mother competing with all the other ladies on our street for the “Best Door Decoration” prize from the local garden club. Year after year, she’d come up with more bizarre ways to slather the front door with spray-on snow and pine cones, neatly preventing any entry to the front door whatsoever during the holiday season. Carolers had to come to our back door to be heard.
But we never had any major Christmas lights on the house that I can remember. My dad didn’t much care for lights. Too much trouble, I guess. It’s a good thing other neighborhoods fathers got corralled into winding thousands of light strings around gutters and over cedar trees. Of course, many of them went quickly insane in the process. We kids loved to look at the Christmas lights in our suburban neighborhood. But what we really liked was to coerce Dad into taking us for a drive to look at some of the really spectacular light displays in New Orleans.
One of our all-time favorite rubbernecking delights was we what we called the Mushroom House (so-called because its front pillars looked like giant toadstools) on Canal Street near St. Anthony’s Church. The Christmas display at this house was enough to knock any kid’s socks off. What seemed like billions of lights covered the entire side yard along with a life-sized illuminated nativity scene, snowmen, reindeer, Santa Claus, Mr. Bingle, candy canes and just about any other totem you could associate with Christmas. It was breathtaking.
Yes, we’ve always been into industrial strength sparkle in the Crescent City. And sparkle plenty, we got. Take the legendary Christmas display at fried chicken magnate Al Copeland’s house in Metairie. Al finally was ordered by the court to move the light display (and an ostentatious one it was, too) to his building on Clearview Parkway where it still lights up the Metairie skies like the Star of Bethlehem during the Yule season. Yes, folks in New Orleans love light shows, particularly at Christmas.
I must say that one of the very best Christmas displays—that brings back the kid even in me—is “Christmas in the Oaks” in City Park. Here are some really great lights—heightened by the reflections in the lagoons and the old oak trees that look like ghostly angels in the dark. The idea is only about four years old, but if you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a real treat (if you can stand the lines of cars that stretch out to Lake Pontchartrain waiting to get in). Better maybe to take one of the tour buses that now makes the trip out to the park.
Other than all the lights and door decorations, I guess we really don’t have a helluva lot to look at around Christmas time—the scenery doesn’t change much all year long. In fact—ask anybody who’s lived in New Orleans for a few years—you’re just as likely to have an 80-degree Christmas as a chilly one. I mean, it’s not like we have snow or anything to distract us.
So what if it’s hot? Our craving for the spectacular takes over again with the lighting of the bonfires on the levee along the Mississippi River. A strange, obscure custom, that. Some say the bonfires started with the early French and German settlers in the area who lit the fires to guide Papa Noel to their homes along the river. Others say that the bonfire customs spring from the more pagan ritual of lighting fires during the winter solstice, the day of least light, as an early invitation to the longer days of spring.
About 20 huge bonfires, “feux de joie” (fires of joy), are lit at about 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve on the levee from Gramercy to Grand Point. The huge fires are visible from the levee and from the river, creating a beautiful landscape. For many years, the traditional Christmas bonfires were “normal” everyday types of blazes-just your usual willow logs and sticks and such.
But as we spectacle-lovers will, even those lowly fires have now become a fantastic show during the Christmas season, Building a Christmas bonfire these days is almost like building a Mardi Gras float. The simple teepee shape has now evolved into multi-story plantation houses and steamboats, sometimes requiring almost a week of man-days to put together. What was once a localized family affair has now become a well-publicized Christmas event that attracts locals as well as visitors from all over the world. And a fantastic show it is, too, viewed from the levee or from the steamboats that come from New Orleans just for the occasion.
I guess these traditions are the Eighties analogy for the neighborhood Christmas lights we all enjoyed so much as kids. I suppose we all need a reminder of the days when we were kids and we stood open-mouthed, bedazzled at the spectacle that is Christmas in the Crescent City.