New Orleans celebrates Christmas pretty much like any other American city, but it is in the nature of this city to never be totally normal; to be a bit quirky in whatever we do, and that includes the holidays. Here are three ways that we go dashing through the glow a little differently:
- Revellions. This is a modern adaptation of an old Creole tradition, but at least it is uniquely ours. The original Réveillon was a special meal served after Christmas Eve midnight mass. That hearkened to the days when Catholics had strict fasting guidelines if they intended to receive communion at mass. The fasting was especially challenge for the midnight service not only because of the lateness of the hour but also because the masses, with their caroling, preaching, incense burning and long communion lines. By the time the church-goers went home they were craving food. The classic Réveillon, back then, was a hearty meal including meats, grillades and grits, and egg dishes.
Gradually, the custom was on the wane until a French Quarter tourism group rebranded the name as a Christmas-themed meal served at local restaurants during the season. Réveillon is French for “wake up,” now it was being used to enliven restaurant cash registers.
This is the only ongoing tradition in which the originators are still around, active and able to tell their story. Preservationist Ann Masson and public relations expert Sandra Dartus were part of a group in the ‘80s trying to make Christmas in New Orleans more of a marketable attraction. They came up with the idea of borrowing from the old Réveillon tradition and creating something new. They also made the original contacts to get restaurants to participate. Through Hurricane Katrina and COVID-19 the tradition has survived and helped to fill restaurants. This Christmas, at the end of such a challenging year, has been especially important.
- Mr. Bingle. We’re not sure if any other American city has its own indigenous Christmas character but we do with Mr. Bingle, a snowman like marionette with a squeaky voice whose wardrobe consisted of an ice cream cone hat, holly wings, a ribbon around his neck and who always carried a peppermint stick. (For protection we presume.) Bingle, whose initials matched those of the former Maison Blanche department store that created him, became known to a whole generation of Baby Boomers who watched his nightly Christmas season TV show in which he sang, danced and, most of all, pitched toys, “for all you girls and boys.” A towering image of Bingle was affixed to the Canal Street store’s facade during the season. (It is now located in New Orleans City Park’s Celebration the Oaks.) And Bingle performed throughput the day in the store’s display window.
When Dillard’s department stores bought out Mason Blanche included in the deal was the rights to Mr. Bingle. Today, he is omnipresent as many of the original batch of Baby Boomers have grandkids. Bingleized items such as cups, dolls, snow globes, dish towels and much more are apparently hot sellers as each year the selections seem to increase.
Few people know that the puppeteer hired to help design Bingle and to operate him for shows, Oscar Isentrout, had also operated a French Quarter puppet strip tease show. The show was, to say the least, unique, especially as one of the puppets would routinely lose her top, but Isentrout’s real fame came from Bingle.
A story is told that there were only a few people at the cemetery when Isentorut died. He was buried in a Jewish cemetery, but his life was certainly touched by Christmas.
After the mourners left, someone spotted an object mysteriously left on his grave marker – a peppermint stick.
- Bon Fires on the Levees. You won’t see them this year because of COVID, but in normal times the fires glow on Christmas Eve on the levees upriver from New Orleans, especially in St. James Parish. The custom traces back to the European winter solstice tradition of creating light for the darkest time of the year and was brought here not by Cajuns but by French settlers directly from the old country. (The story about lighting the way for Papa Noel is just a local yarn.) We may not have snow, but we have fire.
ONE FINAL NOTE
If you want to relive New Orleans Christmas history drive down Canal Street in Mid-City where you will notice the glowing mansion at 4506 Canal St. From 1946 to 1967, this house was decorated lavishly by the Centanni family. Now new owners have recreated the joy. Cars once lined up to see the extravaganza. Among the kids who were fascinated by the sparkling house was young Al Copeland. Many years later Copeland, who made his fortune as the founder of the Popeye’s fried chicken empire, would decorate his home in Metairie with similar dazzle. Copeland always said that he was inspired by the Centanni house. May it inspire future generations. Oh, and notice the figure hanging over the front, none other than Mr. Bingle once again clutching his peppermint cane like a Carnival king and his scepter.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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