The Most Wonderful Time of the Year


In recent years, the Junior League of New Orleans (JLNO) has actively sought to explore diversity and inclusion within the organization. President Christine Vinson explains why holidays should be part of this initiative.

“It’s all about awareness,” she says. “I think recognizing that we celebrate various holidays just makes us more aware, knowledgeable and sensitive to our differences, which should be celebrated.” In sharing their traditions, League members reveal how diversity exists not only within the League but also within one holiday — and even within one family.

Active Shayna Connell’s family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas. Also known as the Festival of Lights, Hanukkah is a Jewish holiday commemorating the Maccabees’ successful rededication of the Temple in 185 BC. The Maccabees only had enough oil to light their lanterns for one night of the celebration, but through a miracle from God, they we able to burn for eight consecutive nights. As a result, the central symbol of Hanukkah is the menorah, a candelabra with nine candles — eight representing the nights of the miracle and one central candle, or “shamash,” used to ignite the others. One candle is ceremoniously lit each night of the holiday.

Before the rededication, the Temple had been in control of the Greek/Syrian Emperor, who had outlawed the Jewish religion and forced Jewish people to pray to Greek gods.

“The Maccabees rose up,” Shayna explains, “and reclaimed their right to follow their traditional religious beliefs.” As she puts it, Hanukkah is a “celebration of religious freedom” as well as of Jewish heritage. Shayna’s extended family gathers for an annual Hanukkah party. “We light the menorah over prayers and exchange gifts.”

Her family also celebrates a New Orleans-style Christmas with a gingerbread decorating party at Red Fish Grill, Teddy Bear Tea with Mr. and Mrs. Claus at the Monteleone, as well as the New Orleans Krewe of Jingle Christmas parade. Christmas day is a more intimate affair with a Christmas Pajama Brunch kicking off a day spent with family.

Other members bring a global perspective to their Christmas celebration. Communications Council Director Susana Bobadilla Ruddock spent half of her life in Spain and cherishes memories of her childhood in what she describes as a traditional Catholic family. She recalls that Christmas Eve (December 24) and Epiphany (January 6) were observed as more religiously and spiritually significant.

On January 5th, the Three Kings parade through all the major cities in Spain for all the children to enjoy. That night, they put their favorite pair of shoes next to the Christmas tree, and the next morning (Epiphany, or Reyes), the children wake up to find what gifts the Three Kings left for them. Children who misbehave will wake up with lumps of “coal” in their shoes along with their gifts.
Susana also emphasizes the importance of food in her family celebrations, as family members play different roles.

“In our family, men have traditionally selected the wines and prepared platters of carefully sliced Iberico ham and other cured meat delicacies, while the women elaborated the more complicated traditional dishes for the multi-course dinner,” she says. These dishes include “cardo en sala de almendras” (creamed thistle with almonds), which is served on Christmas Eve.

“This dish is usually preceded by trays of shellfish and platters of charcuterie,” Susana says, “including all sorts of local shellfish. The main course of this meal is traditionally roasted whole fish and potatoes.”

Susana’s family always makes sure to leave room for dessert. She describes one treat, the Anguila de Toledo made by the bakery of Santo Tomé, as particularly “eye-catching and delectable.” The dessert includes marzipan, a mixture of almond meal and sugar, which has been used in Toledo since the 13th century due to Arabic influences.

Other League members use the holiday as a time to experiment with international flavors. Active Lenora Costa’s parents began exploring cuisines from a variety of cultures through their Christmas meals when they first married, but when Lenora was born, the tradition took a pedagogical turn. “It was a way for me to learn how Christmas is celebrated around the world,” she remembers. “The food was a jumping off point for me to learn about a whole culture, and I would often receive books earlier in the year and gifts for the holidays that would relate to that year’s country.”

Russia, Martinique, Spain, Norway and West Africa are just a few of the many locales featured in Lenora’s intriguing family tradition. Meal preparation begins months in advance of the actual holiday, allowing time to “pick the country and determine where to find ingredients, decorations or anything else we might need.” Lenora recalls some dishes requiring her to request “weird parts of the animal” from the butcher to satisfy her father’s demand for authenticity. Friends and family contribute to the tradition by bringing back unique ingredients and cookbooks from their travels abroad. “Frequently the cookbooks are in the language of the country,” Lenora says, “so it is not unheard of that we have dictionaries in the kitchen to translate for us.”

As the League solidifies its commitment to diversity and inclusion, new members will expand the organization’s definition of the holidays and how they are observed. Our celebratory calendar will fill up with religious and cultural traditions from around the world, enriching us all. We look forward to a time when the League is so inclusive that the holiday season extends year-round, representing people of all faiths and backgrounds. In the meantime, JLNO wishes everyone a safe holiday season filled with comfort and joy.