When I came to New Orleans in 1958 to work for the old States-Item newspaper, it was almost Christmastime and one of my assignments was to interview some visiting celebrity or other who was spending the season at the Roosevelt Hotel. As I stepped into the lobby on the University Place side and looked down the wide and high-ceilinged hall toward Baronne street, a fairyland-like sight came into view.
The sides and top of the passage had been blanketed thickly with angel hair, from which myriad colored lights twinkled and tinsel and ornaments glistened. It was a masterpiece of Christmas decorating, and I’ve never forgotten that first sight of it, even though the name of the person I was there to see escapes me — as do numerous names these days.
Not too many years later, I was the mother of two babies, whose Christmas time celebrations included being taken to the Roosevelt to see that same beautiful scene. Then came their ride through the glorious Celebration in the Oaks at City Park, and our youngsters laughed and clapped every year as that enchanting little snowman, Mr. Bingle, emerged into his window in the old Maison Blanche store on Canal Street.
I got to thinking about Christmases past the other day. Remember when there was a big house on Canal Boulevard that everyone flocked to see during the holidays of the ‘50s, so festooned as it was with lights and ornaments? Then came the heyday of Al Copeland’s monument to a merry yuletide, an offering that stopped traffic in Metairie, and that I never saw for that very reason.
Today, home decorations put up by my neighbors in Algiers make it unnecessary to go any further to sample the visuals of the season; heck, I can just walk down the block to see the show.
Nowhere is Christmas “done” any better than in New Orleans, what with its tours of opulently tricked-out historic houses; midnight mass on the 24th at St. Louis Cathedral, also the setting for Christmas concerts through the 23rd; the Creole Christmas celebration being held every day except Mondays at the old Ursuline Convent; Creole reveillon dinners at local restaurants; holiday cooking demonstrations by local chefs; marching brass bands playing holiday music; etc.
Another event that I remember fondly is the Patio Planters’ caroling in Jackson Square, a 58-year-old event. My father-in-law was a member of this French Quarter gardening club and we participated in this celebration many times. One year, our son — who was 8 or 9 at the time — proudly helped his grandfather distribute candles and song sheets at the gate to the square on the cathedral side. After the singing was over and he hadn’t rejoined us, I began to look around, only to glimpse him walking slowly toward our corner, arms held rigidly at shoulder height, each festooned with about three lighted candle stubs fixed to his sleeves with melted wax.
He was a living candelabra, and his little sister hadn’t been nearby to tell on him when he began his shenanigans. I took off toward him, but the NOPD officer patrolling the square got there before me.
There’s nothing like a reprimand from law enforcement to tell you that you’re being naughty instead of nice.