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New Orleans Celebrates Creole-Style Christmas - 2003-12-11

This is the Christmas season here in the United States and in many parts of the world where local traditions often enhance celebration of the Christian festival. One place in the United States that has its own special Yuletide tradition is New Orleans, in the southern state of Louisiana.

Even the Christmas music is different in New Orleans. It reflects the influence of jazz and the blues, musical forms that started here. Jazz mixed with carols and gospel songs are on the play list at nightly concerts this month in the city's Saint Louis Cathedral, the oldest continuously active Roman Catholic cathedral in the United States.

Laura Claverie, director of the tourism Web site, says the festive spirit in the city draws on centuries-old traditions of the Spanish and French colonists who were known as Creoles.

"Christmas in New Orleans really captures all the spirit of the Creole traditions," explains Ms. Claverie. "Our food, our music, our decorations and our architecture, everything we do really celebrates our Creole heritage."

Today, the word Creole also includes other important ingredients of New Orleans culture, especially that of the African-Americans, whose music provided the roots of the blues and jazz. But at the core of the city's Christmas celebration are many traditions that are purely French in origin. Laura Claverie says one of her favorite events is the annual lighting of bonfires on the levee by the Mississippi river.

"Years ago people thought that if they built these huge bonfires up and down the levee it would guide Santa Claus, or Papa Noel, as he was called, on his flight into New Orleans," she said. "Today, we still build these huge, towering bonfires along the levee on Christmas eve and it is quite an exciting event."

But the real heart of a New Orleans Christmas is found in the kitchen.

A tradition dating from the 19th century is the reveillon dinner, a long feast that can go on all day and into the night. Many people hold dinners in their homes and invite friends and family, but the city's restaurants also rise to the occasion.

"Lots of time and lots of paying attention to what is going on and what you are doing," says Chef Kevin Smith, who prepares Christmas delights at the Upperline Restaurant. "There are a lot of small things that go into the whole picture of making an entree come together and all."

New Orleans cuisine is characterized by layers of flavor that are produced from a long, slow cooking process. Reveillon dinners still feature many of the main ingredients that were used more than 100 years ago, including roast duck and gumbo.

The Upperline restaurant's owner, JoAnn Clevenger says that preparing such feasts takes a lot of work, but that it can also be an essential part of the social gathering.

"The dishes that we serve, like the roast duck, take two to three hours to cook," she explains. "That long, slow getting ready part is actually part of the joy, though, because the time spent in the kitchen can be a time spent getting to know relatives you have not seen since last year or just having fun getting food prepared for other people to enjoy."

Ms. Clevenger says people in New Orleans feel strong connections to the people who came before them. She says most of the food eaten today at reveillon dinners would have been found on tables here two centuries ago.

"Duck was one of the things people could get very easily because wild duck and geese and quail were one of the main sources of protein for people in the early 19th century," explains Ms. Clevenger. "So roast duck is one of the things we love to do. We always have oyster soup and we always have turtle soup because turtle soup was another one of those 19th century special New Orleans festive dishes. Reveillon is about being in a jovial, celebratory mood."

Ms. Clevenger says the main difference between the dinners of today and those of the 19th century is that back then people hunted in the swamps and forests for the game that would be served as the main courses. Today, she says, most ducks, turtles and other sources of meat are specially raised on farms and sold to food markets and restaurants. But she says the preparation and enjoyment of the meals remains the same.