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Distinctive Christmas Traditions of Cajun Country

Distinctive Christmas Traditions of Cajun Country
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by Mary Cowser

Photo by Steve Buser

To someone not from Louisiana, our Christmas traditions and methods of celebration may seem a bit unorthodox. I have even heard us referred to as strange…we prefer unique. I thought it would be the ideal time to show you a few of our traditions that you may find to be out of the ordinary.

We all have turkey for Christmas dinner.” That’s true, but for us this is not just any old turkey.

Our bird is known as a Turducken and it has a few secrets hidden within. No, it’s not a rare and mysterious creature that dwells only in the swamps of Louisiana. I admit, we do eat a variety of unusual animals; however, this one is actually a turkey, which has been stuffed with a duck, which has been stuffed with a chicken, which has been stuffed with stuffing.

There are various opinions about the history of this creation. There is supposedly some records from ancient Rome that make reference to a similar recipe. However, according to an article in TurduchenRecipes.com, the credit for the modern version goes to Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme. He began preparing the Turducken around 1980.

It takes plenty of practice to not only make it appear like a turkey on the outside, but it must be stuffed and cooked in such a way as to maintain each bird’s own distinctive taste and texture.

It’s always amusing to see the surprised expressions on everyone’s face when they slice into this Cajun style turkey.

Réveillon

Another of our traditions involving food is called “Réveillon,” which is from the French word meaning “awakening.” It’s thought this is due to the custom from the 1900s of fasting and staying awake until after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. They would then enjoy a great feast upon returning home. This custom died off over time, but was revived by New Orleans restaurants in the 1990s.

Each year, dozens of local restaurants create their Réveillon menus and submit them for approval by a specially appointed panel. The menus must be extravagant and distinct with dishes that make your mouth water just from reading the menus.

Every year, the chefs seem to surpass the previous year’s menu. Many people visit New Orleans during the Christmas season specifically for the Réveillon. Most of the restaurants offer a wide array of appetizers, entries, side dishes, and desserts. The meal is usually four to six courses. During this event, the prices are much lower than normal. That makes it feasible for many to dine in the most famous and lavish restaurants of New Orleans.

There are sites where you can menu surf and decide where you want to dine and make your reservations. Link to one of those sites here.

Bonfires on the Mississippi

The words Christmas and bonfires are not typically used in the same sentence. Nevertheless, one of our favorite traditions is the burning of bonfires along the Mississippi River levees. The tradition is centuries old and, as always, there are different theories as to the significance.

Some believe it was to guide families down the Mississippi river in route to midnight mass. The most popular theory is that they lead Papa Noel (Santa) to the children’s homes.

Bonfires are burned statewide, but the most spectacular display is in St. James parish on Christmas Eve. There will be over 110 bonfires on the levee this year between the towns of Gramercy and Lutcher, about an hour’s drive west of New Orleans. The bonfires are in many shapes and sizes with some as high as 20 feet. Many of them take weeks to build. The lighting begins at 7:00 pm and all of the bonfires are lit simultaneously.

Cane reed is frequently used to construct the bonfires. When burned, it makes loud popping noises and creates orange streaks of light. Furthermore, many builders load the bonfires with fireworks making this a noisy but magnificent and visually appealing event.

Of course, as with most things we do in Louisiana, there will be festivals. The “Festival of the Bonfires” is in Lutcher, LA. You can be sure there will be parades, rides, crafts, and, as always, Gumbo and music.

There are several ways to observe this event. Some walk down the levee and others drive down the river road. There are also shuttles and tour busses. One thing is certain. Watching the Louisiana bonfires is a splendid and unique way to enjoy Christmas Eve.

Find more information here.

Papa Noel’s Transportation

When Santa’s route brings him to Louisiana, he has to use a different mode of transportation when delivering presents to the children. Instead of reindeer pulling a sleigh, children of Louisiana envision Santa in a pirogue (pee-row) pulled by alligators. He makes his way to their houses on the South Louisiana Rivers and bayous. Just like the reindeers, Santa’s alligators all have names. They are Tiboy, Suzette, Rene, Ninette, Pierre, Alcee, Celeste, and Gaston.

Even our version of “The Night before Christmas” is quite unusual as well. I’ve included a video here if you want a good laugh.

White Christmas

You would never guess that New Orleans would experience a white Christmas. This is a vision that many of you may see every year; however, the snowy Christmas of 2004 was a rare treat for the people of New Orleans.

These are only a few of the things responsible for our reputation of being different. If you ask someone from Louisiana why they are so out of the ordinary, you may get a response like, “It don madda cher, we jus enjoy de life, yea.”

Joyeux Noël 

 

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