By Richard Carroll
You can't help but love a city that loves to celebrate year-round. The joyful spirit of holiday in New Orleans is ongoing, but for New Orleanians and visitors alike, the best time of year begins in early December with a steady run of highlights such as Temple Sinai's Chanukah on the Avenue with their youth choir songs. Meanwhile, Christmas waits eagerly in the wings, and just around the corner the New Year ushers in one of the world's great holiday festivals. Beginning in January with the Twelfth Night Feast of the Epiphany or King's Day, the party continues straight through to Mardi Gras, an exuberant celebration of life before the more sober Catholic Lenten season begins with Ash Wednesday.
New Orleanians seem to be inherently incapable of confining their celebrations to any one day: Mardi Gras, affectionately known to English speakers as Fat Tuesday, takes nearly two weeks to celebrate here. For a 12-day period in early February a whopping 70 parades are held on weekends and evenings in New Orleans and the four-parish area of St. Tammany, Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard, while in late April the huge New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival attracts guests worldwide.
Music swirls about the city in a marvelous mix of church gospel choirs, the blues, R&B, Zydeco, Cajun, Latin and timeless New Orleans jazz, all enjoyed at free evening concerts in Jackson Square at the St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest continuously operating Roman Catholic Cathedral in the country. It dates to 1720, when New Orleans was a Spanish colony.
The square, an American treasure, is the heart of the city, resembling Paris along the Seine or Prague in summer. Visitors crowd into Muriel's for lunch or the busy Cafe Du Monde, first opened in 1862, to enjoy a steaming cup of New Orleans coffee and beignets, a cross between a cruller and a doughnut, while around the periphery artists sit jauntily under umbrellas displaying their work. Ubiquitous street entertainers juggle, tap dance, play the tuba, strut and mime, and work one-liners off the audience.
The most European of United States cities with convincing Caribbean influences hovering about, the site of the original city, the Vieux Carre or French Quarter, is a historic 260-acre district crisscrossed with narrow one-way streets lined with cottages, homes, antique shops, galleries, restaurants and landmarks, all generously decorated with iron lace balconies and sweeping fan windows framed gracefully with shutters on the dazzling ornate Spanish-style architecture. Visitors can discover more than 50 historic locations in the quarter, museums, and innumerable tree-lined parks and aged churches.
Longtime residents are quick to point out that the city is far more than Bourbon Street. In the 1800s the city was "Old World," a place where the rich and cultured enjoyed opera, theater, dining and marvelous New Orleans balls. Ragtime music drifted in and became popular the world over. "Basin Street Blues" was composed in Madame Lulu White's bordello. Appropriately, Louis Armstrong was born in New Orleans on July 4, 1900, and performed there as a young man. (His birthday is debatable.) When the city's bawdy houses closed in 1917, the jazz movement remained, leaving an imprint on New Orleans that is forever.
Along with music, dining is supreme. Creole families of yesteryear celebrated Reveillon dinner after midnight Mass at the St. Louis Cathedral on Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. Today Reveillon is offered throughout December at many top restaurants in New Orleans and the nearby parishes.
Local chefs explain that when the Cajuns migrated from Nova Scotia the lobster decided to follow, and by the time they arrived they had lost so much weight they were renamed crayfish. A resident added, "We have thousands of restaurants in New Orleans and if they're not good they don't last for three months, crayfish or not."
A tradition for repeat yuletide visitors to New Orleans is a stroll through the nostalgic lobby of the historic Roosevelt Hotel, a block-long indoor canopy of thousands of white twinkling lights that create an astounding emotion of another time, as the jazz band marches though while Santa smiles and the kids giggle. The hotel, a Waldorf Astoria property, dates to 1893 and has hosted a long list of celebrities, presidents and characters that could be plucked out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.
Downtown visitors will find hip fashion trends, upscale women's boutiques and art shops galore. More shopping is found along the River Walk on River Front Street between the river and the Quarter. The house that inspired Anne Rice's novel "The Witching Hour," a gorgeous mansion tucked between ancient live oak trees, is a "must-see" for her enthusiasts.
Travelers are drawn to New Orleans and south Louisiana to have a good time and find a flamboyant and exotic setting. The "Big Easy," as the city is called, is one big fiesta with the feeling of an ongoing Mardi Gras. Some say one purpose of Mardi Gras is to catapult New Orleanians out of their troubles, frustrations and failures of the past year That's not a bad thought any time of the year.
WHEN YOU GO
For more information: www.neworleans.com
Richard Carroll is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.