The Rèveillon: A Christmas Eve Tradition in New Orleans
Tonight's lecture at BK House, Transitions: Vestiges of Lost New Orleanian Food Traditions, presented by Liz Williams of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, is the final lecture in our 12-part Tricentennial Lecture Series.* In this talk, Ms. Williams will discuss both holiday and year-round New Orleanian food traditions and how they have shifted and changed over time, what has been lost, and what is emerging as New Orleans moves past its tricentennial year and into the future.
Not long ago our board director at BKH, Ann Masson, wrote a number of well-researched short pieces about the social history of Christmas and the item featured below, which highlights the once prevalent Creole/Catholic tradition of Rèveillon in New Orleans, is especially pertinent in light of tonight's lecture. In recent years, many upscale restaurants in the city have embraced the spirit of the tradition by offering festive, multi-course holiday menus, but the revival is, not unexpectedly, a far cry from its roots in New Orleans's 18th century Catholic households.
*This series is co-presented with Vieux Carre Property Owners, Residents, and Associates (VCPORA) with partial support from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Keep it 300 and Union Pacific. For a full list of the lectures, visit the bottom of our homepage at bkhouse.org.
A Christmas Eve Tradition in New Orleans
Elaborate table illustrated in The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery, London, 1890
Early New Orleans was a Catholic city where Christmas was celebrated primarily as a religious holiday focused on midnight mass. In the 18th century, Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and shopping extravaganzas did not exist, but gatherings of families and friends to feast and drink following midnight services were common. This was the beginning of the rèveillon tradition, which lasted in Creole homes for more than two hundred years.
The French word “rèveillon” refers to a Christmas or New Year’s Eve supper. Derived from the verb meaning ‘to wake up,” the event itself was more an elaborate breakfast than a supper. Beginning in the wee hours, it often lasted nearly till dawn. Since children were not up early to see Santa’s gifts in those times, the late hour was not a problem for weary adults. Later in the day, perhaps at mid-afternoon, a Christmas dinner was served in many households, another excuse for indulging in the rich foods and long conversations so enjoyed by New Orleanians. Even during the stringent times of the Civil War, “the French, sitting around the festive board, did their best to have as lively a rèveillon as possible.” Daily Picayune, 25 December 1861.
Its beginning as a breakfast dictated a menu focused on egg dishes, breads, and puddings. Roasts and ducks, vegetables and salads, and elaborate desserts were saved for the Christmas day dinner. But Creole cooks found many ways to create special feasts for their late-night guests. One favorite entrée was “daube glace,” a well-seasoned jellied meat greatly prized in New Orleans dining rooms. Several varieties of eggs accompanied by the cook’s favorite breads and perhaps a turtle or oyster soup were the main dishes; other families served grillades and grits. A special cake or pudding usually followed. Eggnog was a favorite, but wines, cordials, and stronger spirits were offered to guests, along with the traditional strong coffee.
By the mid-19th century, new customs were beginning to take the place of the late-night supper following mass, but in spite of this, Christmas in New Orleans retained its essentially religious and familial character. American influences eventually prevailed, and by the 20th century, the rèveillon was limited to very traditional homes where the older generation carried on the customs of their ancestors. By World War II, hardly a family was celebrating the season in the old French manner.
From Cassell's Household Guide, London 1869
Children and adults enjoyed many special treats at Christmas. At an 1853 celebration in a New Orleans home, “Emma gave the children plenty of ice-cream, sirup and water, and bonbons.” Foods associated with Christmas dinner included ham, turkey, game, oysters, lobster, beef, plum pudding, fruit cake, mince and pumpkin pies, sponge cake, eggnog—in other words, rich and sweet foods were not on the average daily table. Spirits of every type were served. Molded desserts and jellies were created as table decorations, as well as delicious treats.
A guest described a grand Christmas dinner in mid-19th century New Orleans:
“The table presented a splendid appearance, elegant china, cut glass, and silver and two splendid vases of natural flowers, and a bouquet of Parma violets at every plate…”