- Photo courtesy New Orleans City Park
1 When did Celebration in the Oaks get started and who began it?
This year marks the 30th anniversary of what most people consider the biggest and best holiday light display in New Orleans, which has grown since it first opened on December 11, 1987 in City Park. Before that, there had been a smaller display in the park's Botanical Garden. The garden's director, Paul Soniat, collaborated with Betty Bagert, a longtime park volunteer, to create an even bigger event. They recruited WWL-TV anchor Angela Hill, who got the station to sponsor the light display and became a booster. They also convinced James Cain, then chief executive of NOPSI, the city's public utility company (now Entergy New Orleans), to agree to spend $150,000 to modernize the park's lighting system and sponsor the event.
The first year featured more than 150,000 lights, Christmas trees decorated by local schools and clubs and a nativity scene donated by the Centanni family, who had staged a popular Christmas display outside their Mid-City home on Canal Street for many years. Times-Picayune columnist Iris Kelso called it "simply the most spectacular Christmas event to hit New Orleans in years, maybe ever. It is awesome to drive under the oaks and experience it." By 1990, the lights were attracting some 350,000 visitors to the park each holiday season and the event became one of the park's biggest fundraisers. In 1991, the display's name was changed to the more inclusive "Celebration in the Oaks." Over the years new features have been added, including many high-tech displays. This year's event is open nightly (except Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve) until Jan. 1, 2017.
2 Cajun Night Before Christmas is a must-read in our house each year. Who is the "Trosclair" credited with writing it?
Trosclair was a Cajun character who appeared in popular radio commercials for Bergeron Chrysler-Plymouth throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In December 1971, Pelican Publishing Company owner Milburn Calhoun heard one of the commercials present a Cajun version of Clement Clarke Moore's Christmas poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," better known as "'Twas the Night Before Christmas."
"I could see the book right there before my eyes," Calhoun told Times-Picayune writer Doug MacCash in 2004. Calhoun bought the rights to the poem, which was written by J.B. Kling, a Baton Rouge police officer who also voiced the commercials. Pelican hired illustrator James Rice, who at the time was a professor at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. Crucial to him getting the job was how well he could draw an alligator, since the book would feature Santa Claus (wearing muskrat fur) piloting a sleigh pulled up the bayou by alligators instead of reindeer. Rice said he had never drawn an alligator before and had to draw 100 before he got it right. The book was also enhanced by the editing of Howard Jacobs, who for many years wrote the "Remoulade" column in The Times-Picayune.
The book Cajun Night Before Christmas was published in 1973 and has sold more than half a million copies. The book also inspired an animated light display (complete with a recorded Cajun narrator) at Celebration in the Oaks.
- Photo by Rebecca Ratliff
3 What is a reveillon dinner and what is its history?
A reveillon, a holiday tradition that began in France, was a fixture in 18th century New Orleans and has been expanded in recent years. In French, the word means "to awaken." In Creole New Orleans a reveillon dinner would be enjoyed by the family after they returned home from midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. As observant Catholics, they would have fasted until then, making the late-night breakfast feast all the more special. In their book Christmas in New Orleans, Peggy Scott Laborde and John Magill explain that the feast would include eggs, sweetbreads, raisin bread and daube glace (a type of jellied meat) as well as lots of desserts. In the 1980s, the term was adopted by French Quarter Festivals Inc. and the Christmas New Orleans style campaign. They coordinated with local restaurants to offer special fixed-price meals under the reveillon dinner name. The campaign continues this year and a list of participating restaurants can be found at www.neworleansonline.com.
- Photo by Frank Stansbury
4 How did caroling in Jackson Square get started?
For many of us, it wouldn't be Christmas in New Orleans without this event the Sunday night before Christmas. It was first staged in 1947, one year after the Patio Planters of New Orleans was founded as a neighborhood beautification group for residents of the French Quarter. The nonprofit is active year-round but the Christmas caroling event is its best-known activity.
The first year's event, the brainchild of then-club president Mrs. Parker Harris, drew a crowd of 1,800, according to The Times-Picayune. "The whole purpose when it started was to have a program for kids in the Quarter," said publicity chairman Ted Liuzza in a 1979 article. "We had a Christmas tree and distributed toys, particularly to the needy children." He explained that after two years, the event was moved to evening hours and instead of toys, song sheets and candles were distributed. School choirs have often been spotlighted and asked to perform on stage at the event, which in recent years has drawn as many as 10,000 people to Jackson Square. Mayors of New Orleans from deLesseps "Chep" Morrison to Mitch Landrieu also have taken part, either speaking or singing, or both.
- Photo courtesy New Orleans Public Library
5 Is it true the city once had an official decorator whose job included decorating Canal Street for the holidays?
Betty Finnin served as the city's official decorator from 1933 until 1970. Formerly a dress designer and decorator and clerk in the city's delinquent tax office, Finnin was given the title of official decorator by Mayor Robert Maestri. Her Christmas decorations first graced Canal Street in 1939. "Before this year, Christmas was just a flat celebration as far as the city itself went," Finnin told The Times-Picayune. "The stores decorated, of course, but that's about all." Finnin would change that, designing and creating the decorations that graced the Canal Street light standards from the Mississippi River to Claiborne Avenue.
Her 1988 obituary pointed out just how elaborate some of her annual Christmas displays were. "Her Christmas transformations of Canal Street were often on a grandiose scale, with the 1949 season's decorations boasting neon stars, life-sized Santas, 300 Vermont fir trees and the fashioning of the street's 35-foot light posts to look like candles." Finnin also decorated the street for Mardi Gras and other major events. In 1970, her position was eliminated due to city budget cuts.
- PHOTO COURTESY MEGAN BRADEN-PERRY
6 Where did kids get their picture taken with "Black Santa"?
Historian and author Keith Medley says he has childhood memories of a black Santa Claus making appearances at Circle Food Store, the Seventh Ward landmark. Others remember a black Santa at Gentilly Woods Shopping Center in the 1970s. But otherwise, Santa most often didn't look like all of the children who visited him.
For the past 45 or so years, the best-known black Santa, also called Seventh Ward Santa, has posed for pictures with generations of local kids. His studio portraits are taken at Dennis Photofinish studio at St. Bernard Avenue and North Tonti Street, but Seventh Ward Santa has also made countless visits to schools and day care centers. His smiling face and gray and white beard are instantly recognizable to parents and children. "Many remember him from his 31 years as an Orleans Parish school bus driver, who on the last day of school would treat his passengers to lunch at McDonald's," Jewel Bush wrote for Uptown Messenger in 2013. Santa spokesman Fred Parker explained that a child's mother donated a Santa suit one year for the Christmas trip and then Santa really looked the part.
"Taking pictures with this Santa is a New Orleans rite of passage," Bush says. "He's a multi-generational cultural marker of all that is right with our city. He's the bright spot in New Orleans schools, a positive tradition — one of few that has survived Hurricane Katrina. He's proof that Santa should look like you. I had my picture taken with him as a teenager and my son had his taken with him too."
- Photo by Kandace Power Graves
7 What's the original story of Mr. Bingle?
Around here, the little snowman with the ice cream cone hat and holly wings gets almost as much attention as Santa Claus. After all, we love our characters in this city, so it makes sense that there would be such adulation for a New Orleans original. The concept for Mr. Bingle came from Emile Alline, the display director for the old Maison Blanche department store on Canal Street. On a buying trip to Chicago, Alline discovered other department stores employing holiday mascots, including Marshall Field's Uncle Mistletoe and Montgomery Ward's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
Alline came up with the idea of a snowman character for Maison Blanche and pitched the idea to store executives. His protoype looked like what we know today: a snowman with an ice cream cone hat, candy cane and holly wings. Mr. Bingle made his debut in the 1947 holiday season, in store advertising and even a 50-foot version displayed on the five-story front of the Canal Street store (now the Ritz-Carlton hotel). He had his own theme song: "Jingle, jangle, jingle. Here comes Mr. Bingle, with another message from Kris Kringle. Time to launch the Christmas season, Maison Blanche makes Christmas pleasin'. Gifts galore for you to see, each a gem from MB."
Edwin "Oscar" Isentrout, a Bourbon Street entertainer and puppeteer, was hired to develop a marionette version and give Mr. Bingle his voice. Dolls and other Bingle-themed merchandise followed, and he even starred in his own daily TV shows for children during the Christmas season. The Maison Blanche chain was sold to Dillard's in 1998 and for a few years the giant fiberglass Mr. Bingle was mounted outside Lakeside Shopping Center. In 2005, he was refurbished and donated to New Orleans City Park where he is a favorite during Celebration in the Oaks.
- Photo by Skooksie/Creative Commons
8 How many times have we had a real white Christmas in New Orleans with snow on the ground?
A white Christmas is pretty rare in a city with a subtropical climate like New Orleans. According to Carl Arredondo, chief meteorologist at WWL-TV Channel 4, from 1852 to the present, the National Weather Service has recorded only two instances of snow (or something close to it) falling on Dec. 25. In 1953 the city saw a trace amount of snow on Christmas Day. We came close in 1989, when snow fell on Dec. 22 and ice remained a big issue on Christmas Eve that year. Same story on Dec. 22, 1995, when a trace amount of snow was recorded.
The Christmas snowfall many of you will remember was in 2004, when half an inch of snow fell throughout the metro area. It certainly wasn't enough in some parts of town to make a snowman or start a snowball fight, but enough to give us that white Christmas that most of our lives we could only dream about.
- Photo Courtesy DOWNTOWN DEVELOPMENT DISTRICT
9 What is the history of Christmas parades in New Orleans?
Though there have been holiday parades staged Uptown and in the suburbs over the years, Canal Street (just like during Carnival) always has been home to grand street pageants. The first published mention of a Christmas parade in the city was in 1922. "Rich and poor mingled in the brilliant Christmas Eve parade Sunday night," reported The Times-Picayune. "Electric lights, diamonds, fashionably tailored and homemade garments caught the eye and the rollicking, happy crowd welcomed the coming of Saint Nicholas." In 1940, a children's Christmas parade was broadcast on WWL Radio. The Dec. 15, 1941 parade on Canal Street came one week after the country was plunged into World War II. The war ended the parade for four years, but it returned in 1945 and parades were staged well into the 1970s.
The Christmas New Orleans Style campaign began staging holiday parades in 1985. A 1988 parade featuring 10 floats and nine bands was the brainchild of First Lady Mickey Barthelemy. Her husband, Mayor Sidney Barthelemy, dressed as Santa Claus in the first parade, which also featured the Neville Brothers and Charmaine Neville performing Christmas songs. Parades in the 1990s featured TV weatherman Willard Scott, actor John Goodman, music mogul Quincy Jones and chef Paul Prudhomme dressed as Santa.
Since 2007, the Downtown Development District and other sponsors have staged the Krewe of Jingle parade. This year's rolled Dec. 3.
10 I remember the dome atop the Hibernia Bank building downtown always lighted up red and green for Christmas and blue and white for Hanukkah. What is the history of the Hibernia building and tradition?
The Hibernia Bank Building at 812 Gravier St. opened in 1921. Designed by the architects at Favrot and Livaudais, the building rises 23 stories above the ground and was the tallest building in the state until the State Capitol was built in 1932. For 20 more years after that it remained the tallest building in the city, which made the dome that sits atop the building all the more prominent. An observation tower there operated until 1970 and was listed as a must-see in many city guidebooks.
Atop the tower, 355 feet above the street, was a huge beacon lantern that was an official government-chartered light visible from waterways surrounding the city, according to a 1977 John Pope article in The States-Item. In 1973, during the Arab oil boycott, the lights were shut off to conserve energy. The lights returned in 1979 and a former public relations person for the bank, which was bought out by Capital One in 2006, surmised that the tradition of lighting the tower in holiday colors began about that time as well. The tower was lit not only for Christmas and Hanukkah but also Mardi Gras and other special occasions. The building was sold after Hurricane Katrina and renovated into the Hibernia Tower Apartments by HRI Properties, which also is headquartered there.
- Photo by WIKIMEDIA
11 One of my favorite Christmas songs is Louis Armstrong's "Christmas in New Orleans." What is its history?
If you're like me, you've heard that wonderful, locally flavored Christmas song, featuring Satchmo's unmistakable sound, all your life. What you may not know is that one of the men who wrote it is better known for his work with Walt Disney.
Richard M. Sherman and his brother Robert B. Sherman were the songwriting duo behind the well-known music featured in Mary Poppins, The Jungle Book, The Parent Trap and their best-known song, "It's a Small World (After All)" which some have called the single most performed and most translated piece of music on Earth. Richard M. Sherman was 27 years old when he teamed up with fellow songwriter Joe Van Winkle to write the Louis Armstrong holiday tune, only they didn't write it with Armstrong in mind.
"I had just gotten out of the service but hadn't teamed up with my brother yet," Sherman told Gambit. "I met this young songwriter Joe Van Winkle and we sat down on a hot California summer day and decided to write something cool. We decided on a Christmas song and since I loved Dixieland music, it became 'Christmas in New Orleans.'" Its lyrics celebrate "magnolia trees at night, sparkling bright" and "a Dixieland Santa Claus leading the band to a good old Creole beat."
Sherman said he and Van Winkle were happy with the tune but didn't really expect it to go anywhere. It ended up in the hands of bassist Harry Goodman (brother of Benny Goodman), who also was a music publisher. The next time Sherman saw Harry, he mentioned that he had just recorded the song with a well-known artist and thought Sherman would like the results. "Unbeknownst to me, when we went in to hear it, it was being sung by my idol, Louis Armstrong," Sherman said. "I adored him all my life and was nuts about his work, so this was a dream come true."
According to Ricky Riccardi, archivist at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in New York, Armstrong's recording was released by Decca Records in November 1955. Billboard commented that "Satchmo makes like a Dixieland Santa Claus here, handling a tasty vocal and then riffing a chorus on trumpet in Creole style. Armstrong collectors will flip over this." They still do.
- Photo By Justin McGregor/Creative Commons
12 Whatever happened to Al Copeland's annual Christmas display?
Al Copeland, the flamboyant founder of the Popeyes fried chicken chain, lived large — and celebrated Christmas in a big way. For 35 years, from the mid-1970s until 2008, Copeland turned his Metairie mansion on Folse Drive into a holiday light display like none other at the time. It was Celebration in the Oaks in overdrive: millions of lights, animated figures, giant lighted figures of snowmen, Santa Claus and his reindeer blanketed by fake "snow" on some nights.
Copeland, who grew up poor, always said his Christmas decorations were inspired by the holiday display at the Centanni family home on Canal Street, which he saw as a child in the 1950s. At Copeland's house, the crowds some nights were so large that sheriff's deputies had to direct traffic, which snaked in front of the home and drew hot dog and cotton candy vendors. That prompted some of Copeland's neighbors to sue to have the display shut down. In a compromise, Copeland moved the lights to his company headquarters in Elmwood and even to the State Capitol in Baton Rouge for a few years, but they returned to Metairie in 1991. After Copeland died on Easter Sunday 2008, his family set up the light display at his home one last time the following Christmas. They then donated the lights, valued at $50,000, to Jefferson Parish, which now erects many of the displays at its Christmas in the Park event in Lafreniere Park.