Top Louisiana Cajun Holiday Traditions

Louisiana is a place steeped in history and traditions and the holiday season is no exception.  Below are some of the most common Cajun and Creole holiday traditions, each morphed from ancient Louisiana tradition and culture, and each being carried on by Louisiana residents, binding them to each other and to their roots.  Click here for a full list of Cajun holiday traditions.

1.    Turducken

There are conflicting reports on the origin of this Louisiana dish.  There are supposedly records from ancient Rome that show a similar dish but according to native Louisianians, the current recipe is credited to Cajun Chef Paul Prudhomme, who began preparing it in 1980.  The turducken is what it sounds like: a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken stuffed with stuffing….nothing vegan about it.  It sounds pretty simple and straightforward but actually takes some skill to make the outside appear like a turkey while also preserving the character and taste of each meat.  You will find this on the table of truly Cajun families over the holidays and no one will have to ask what it is.

2.    Reveillon

Derived from the French word for “awakening,” Reveillon originally was a meal served after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. Early Louisiana was almost entirely Catholic, and virtually the entire community would participate in these ceremonies. Families would return from the late-night service famished and set upon a feast prepared in advance and laid out on the table or sideboard.  A typical early Reveillon menu included mostly breakfast foods— egg dishes, breads and puddings, but could also include turtle soup, oysters and grillades of veal. The dinners could last for many hours, sometimes lasting until dawn of the next day. By the turn of the century, Reveillon dinners could be found only in traditional homes, and by the 1940s the custom was all but extinct do to American holiday conventions like Christmas trees, gifts for children and shopping frenzies gradually establishing themselves. In the 1990s, however, the Reveillon tradition was “reawakened” and transformed. The organization French Quarter Festivals Inc. approached local restaurants with an idea to offer and promote special holiday menus hoping to attract more tourists. Restaurants eagerly embraced the idea, and soon so did their local regulars and out-of-town visitors.  The restaurants offering Reveillon menus this season run the gamut from old-line Creole to the most contemporary and modern. Tujague’s Restaurant, established in 1856, sets out a Reveillon of its traditional specialties — including shrimp remoulade, lobster bisque, satsuma-glazed quail with dirty rice stuffing, and Bananas Foster bread pudding. While at Vacherie Restaurant, located in the Hotel St. Marie, the four-course feast can start with seafood gumbo and end with Louisiana pecan pie of bread pudding with a whiskey sauce.

3.    Bonfires on the Mississippi

Why bonfires on Christmas Eve? Some historians believe they are a carry-down of an ancient European tradition where bonfires initially honored successful harvests and later from Christianity.  However, ask the young and the young at heart who continue the bonfire tradition today, and the most common response is that the fires illuminate the way for Santa Claus’ (or Papa Noel, as the Cajuns say) flying sleigh and eight reindeer to find the homes of local good girls and boys.  The bonfires are found on The Great River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.  Every year the boast dozens of 20-feet-high towers of burning logs.  The Christmas bonfires, as locals call them, are mostly teepee-shaped, but some can be odd shapes paying tribute to the river’s heritage—shapes ranging from miniature plantation homes to tiny replica paddlewheel steamships. Bonfires are built by families, friends and co-workers who visit, cook and mingle between the fires. It’s a local celebration with an environment akin to football tailgating, and the practice has continued for generations. The bonfires are up and down the river, but the highest concentration is in St. James Parish, in and around Gramercy, Lutcher and Paulina. Bonfire parties are not necessarily open to the public, but onlookers will likely be offered kind words and holiday greetings should they mingle on foot. Another option to experience the Louisiana holiday bonfire tradition is Festival of the Bonfires, held at Lutcher Recreational Park.

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