New Orleans has always celebrated New Year's its own way. Collectively, our revelry, growing and changing with the city itself, reflects the mores and climate of our time as old traditions merge with new attitudes, adding to the culture and allure of our city.
The distinctive flair in our past celebrations had to be of course, marked with food. Liz Williams, Director of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, says that all of those frilly clothes and powdery makeup weren't just for show. Our French ancestors did everything in style.
"In the very early years, when the city was primarily French, there were many Révellions, which are those midnight dinners," Williams said. "A lot of restaurants have actually revived that tradition. It's a very old style of dining where people would eat all sorts of rich and fancy food. There were all kinds of rules attached to the meal and most were no less than five courses and could be up to 12 or 18."
Williams also champions the other side of New Orleans culture, the gens de couleur libres, citing their food traditions may not have been very fancy, but they were not short on flavor.
"Many Southern blacks held a tradition of eating what they called, 'Hopping John,' which is mostly black eyed peas," Williams said. "They have much higher symbolism than the révellions, which were mostly just displays of opulence. The peas symbolized health, and the more peas you could eat, the healthier you would become. The tradition of eating cabbage or greens would represent money, and what's interesting is when the Sicilians came, they had a very similar tradition of eating lentils. If you think about it, Sicily is very close to Africa, and I think it's amazing how cultures can mix and collide."
According to John Magill of the Historic New Orleans Collection, for most of the Francophone population of old New Orleans pre-1900, New Year's Eve was the much hipper holiday. Most of the city was Catholic, which meant a long and arduous 12 a.m. mass on Christmas day. "Christmas was reserved as a family holiday, a time to celebrate Jesus' birth, and the religious overtones of the holiday tended to damper out a lot of the fun to be had," Magill said. "However New Year's was a much rowdier celebration."
Magill maintains New Year's Eve as a time for the young and the restless to hit the town. Apparently street revelry has a long tradition in New Orleans, as far back as anyone can remember. "Canal Street was more of the focal point in this day, although the French Quarter has taken precedence now," he said. "Young men would dress in their finest and pass young ladies in the streets bearing small gifts for ones they fancied. These gifts were usually romantic in nature, such as perfume or trinkets, and they were usually paid for these gifts by a kiss on the cheek or otherwise. Of course, the more gifts you could afford, the more affection you got." Seems not much has changed there.
But what really began to shape New Year's celebrations in New Orleans started out as a novelty enterprise, which now seems to have become our all-encompassing mission. It can be summed up in one word: tourism.
New Orleans has always been a bit of tourist trap. However, New Year's happened to be a light period before the 1930s; that is, until the advent of the Sugar Bowl. The college crowd tended to add even more to the rowdy nature of yesteryear as more and more people from all over became exposed to a different New Orleans as a relatively warm, no holds barred winter getaway.
From the 1930s up until the 1960s, however, the city was stratified. White celebrations tended to focus around Canal Street and the Quarter, while black celebrations would gather on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, known then as, "Black Canal Street", and the old Treme neighborhood, where Jazz was always in full swing. Somewhere around this time, the tradition of "burying" the old year came about, and an empty casket was paraded around the streets; always with large second lines in tow.
Once desegregation took hold in the early 1970s, New Orleans finally had all of its stars aligned to become the major tourist destination it is today. "Large hotels and businesses shying away from the segregationist aspect of the South finally felt comfortable doing business here, and New Orleans saw a huge upshot in hotel rooms. "With those rooms, came even more tourists," Magill said. "Movies like Easy Rider began to help spread the free love philosophy, and a lot of hippie kids saw New Orleans as an artist's haven; this really began to change the dynamic of what was going on in the Quarter. It really became even more surreal than usual."
The 1980s saw rapid development in downtown New Orleans with the oil boom and later subsequent bust. However, the 1984 World's Fair, though declared a dud, also created a lot more infrastructure to support you guessed it: more tourists. And as more and more people became hip to the charm of a wintertime New Orleans, locals began finding more and more ways to entertain them.
This was all fine and dandy until the 1990s.
Crushing economic problems in the city led to an insurmountable crime wave, and New Orleans became the murder capital of America. Partly attributed to a flood of guns awash on the streets, around this time it would seem bullets all of a sudden became cheaper than fireworks. Somehow, though, it just added to the allure.
"A homemade fireworks display on New Year's has always been a bit of tradition in New Orleans," Magill explained. "As has gunfire, mischief, and revelry — that tradition's been around since at least the battle of New Orleans.
However in the 1990s, it really got out of hand. You would see crowds of people, literally crowds, just pouring bullets into the air. I'm sure you remember the slogan, 'falling bullets kill.' People were constantly getting hurt, but it was more like a novelty. No one took it serious because they seemed to strike like lightning. But after a tourist from Boston was tragically struck and killed in 1994, on the Moonwalk no less, the public became much more safety conscious."
But the public seems to have a short memory span, and the tourists kept on coming in growing numbers. After the heat of the '90s died down, something new began to grow out of the ashes. Starting in the early 2000s and really gaining wind in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath, New Year's was once and for all wrestled from Canal and Bourbon and nestled neatly in the lap of a six foot papier-mâché baby, cradled between the Cathedral and Jax Brewery. The Crescent City Countdown began to take form.
"[After Katrina] we just had to figure out a way to let people know we were still here," Debra Bresler, co-organizer of the Crescent City Countdown Club (CCC) explains. The CCC was founded as a non-profit organization formed specifically to preserve a traditional New Year's Eve celebration in the Quarter. Despite unprecedented support from the city, roughly 20 to 25 different local businesses come together to finance the event themselves. "Every year we start from zero and we raise money again," Bresler said. "The city only runs the stage, we do the countdown with the help of our sponsors, and WWOZ simulcasts it worldwide."
The CCC, known far and wide for its mascot, the adorable and larger than life "Baby New Year", has grown to be recognized as one of the top celebrations in the country by offering revelers tons of live local music, the chance to party with the mayor, and of course the countdown with the help of a newly renovated, eight-foot-tall illuminated fleur de lis (formerly a gumbo pot). The fleur is dropped every year atop Jax Brewery Condominiums by local legend Erskine Terry, culminating the countdown to midnight as the exquisite "Symphony in the Sky" begins. This massive fireworks display, themed to soulful New Orleans music, also pays homage to the Sugar Bowl, as fight songs play as the sky changes colors to match the visiting teams.
Each year, thousands of revelers from near and far descend upon the French Quarter, not realizing they're a part of long-standing traditions of street revelry and deviant behavior stemming from our first residents to themselves. Luckily these days, people seem more intent on partying than running someone through with a saber.
"A lot of people think that it's dangerous down there, with the crowds and everything," Magill explained. "But honestly it's probably much more civil now than it ever was before. You really took a risk going out back then. You'd think a Frenchman dressed in his finest drapery would be a bit of pansy. But in reality, those guys were a rough and tumble bunch, hell bent on mischief, and really ready to party. The ladies weren't much different either. Things are much better now."