Like many in the U.S., I have been watching cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies.
Yes, I readily admit I am among the millions who tune into these formulaic films, especially now that they and other networks are introducing more BIPOC characters and storylines. These are usually set in small towns and include light-hearted romance, Christmas traditions and a keen sense of community spirit.
Watching these movies typically gets me reminiscing about holiday traditions I experienced in my childhood. Though I certainly am not from a small town, and many of the traditions in these movies do not mirror my experiences, the emotions they evoke are truly universal.
For me, holidays in my family were always amongst the most memorable times in my life. Perhaps it’s because these memories hold some of the happiest times of my life growing up. These experiences are very much woven into who I am today.
I still love being connected through family, community and culture-based celebrations, especially holiday celebrations. I like to think of it as harkening back to a time in my life when family was at the center of time spent together – siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and a plethora of fictive relatives.
Those wonderful times of growing up in my New Orleans hometown, a place replete with celebrations and unique traditions strongly influenced through a history of cultural blending and a love of revelry, is something I miss. Holding onto these memories is something I love.
According to nostalgia expert Krystine Batcho, PhD, people feel more nostalgic during the holidays because many memories are reawakened, and relationships renewed. During the holidays, families and friends get together to celebrate and reconnect; they get caught up on one another’s lives, reminisce and browse through old photographs. Even from afar, friends and relatives get back in touch, with phone calls, letters, greeting cards and posts on social networking sites.
For many, holidays bring back memories of simpler times along with the sense of the security of childhood or the carefree feelings of being young, with few of the worries and stress that accompany responsibilities. Most often, holidays remind us of people who have played important roles in our lives and the activities we shared with them.
Batcho’s description certainly resonates with me. I love to share my favorite holiday activities and stories with anyone who will listen. In this article, I will share a glimpse of one of my favorite childhood memories derived from our French-Creole cultural tradition, with benchmarks rooted in a Latin-based society, strong family ties and Catholicism.
Most often, holidays remind us of people who have played important roles in our lives and the activities we shared with them.
Amongst my most vivid recollections of holidays while growing up was witnessing my parents, especially my Dad, preparing for his annual réveillon celebration at our home on Christmas Eve. Maybe it’s just all nostalgia, but for me this occasion always felt so grand and luxurious.
Moreso, what makes it a special memory is that our home was not exceptionally large and we were far from wealthy, yet he made a point of opening our doors for a holiday visit from family, friends and their neighbors. Family and friends merrily chatting and laughing and the smell of aromas wafting from kitchens – I don’t think that I have a strong childhood memory that doesn’t include these things – something that I will forever cherish.
The word “Réveillon” (from réveiller, to awaken) was originally used in France hundreds of years ago to describe this early breakfast following Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. This tradition, nearly always in a private home, continued in Louisiana. After a cold December night, the réveillon meal served to warm and enliven not only the adults, but the older children who were allowed to join them at church.
It was an honor for someone outside the family to be invited for the réveillon meal, which was usually restricted to only the closest friends. Réveillon is also observed in Belgium, Brazil in several provinces in Canada and in my hometown city of New Orleans, due to its strong French-Creole heritage and in other French-speaking locations In the United States. In Portugal, réveillon is typically observed on New Year’s Eve.
REVEILLON IN NEW ORLEANS
For New Orleans, this tradition dates to the mid-1800s when the city was almost entirely Catholic. As with France, virtually everyone in the community would participate in these réveillon ceremonies. Early on, families would return from Midnight Mass, famished and set upon a family feast prepared in advance and laid out on the table or sideboard.
It was an honor for someone outside the family to be invited for the réveillon meal, which was usually restricted to only the closest friends.
It is generally known in local circles that people in New Orleans go all-out for different celebrations and especially at Christmas. My parents and other family members were no exception to these practices.
In advance of Christmas Eve, my mother would pull out her cherished glassware handed down from her grandmother and bring out silverware, both hers and borrowed from other family members. I still recall her, me and several of my siblings gathered around the table helping to polish the silver.
In something akin to a production line, she would have several polishing cloths, her cleaning solution and toothpicks available for us to work in small crevices and tight spots in the silverware. We would work for what felt like hours, and the polishing was not done until she could clearly see the light and her reflection in the silver pieces.
PLANNING THE FEAST
While my Mother mostly focused on getting our home prepared, it was my Dad who oversaw advanced planning of his feast and decision-making about which traditional cocktails would be served.
Each year, he would order fruitcakes made by the Sisters of the Holy Family, a Catholic religious order of BIPOC nuns founded in New Orleans in 1837. He would douse them in rum or brandy and let them sit aging in their tins for months until his event. He usually baked several other cakes (his coconut cake being my favorite). I do recall a time or two when their budget would allow him to splurge on purchasing a traditional French yule log.
On Christmas Eve, he would allow me to join him in the kitchen as he prepared his feast that included laying out a spread that included bountiful bowls of fruits and nuts scattered around our living and dining room. He would set up his bar for the evening and prepare trays of hors d’oeuvres including shrimp cocktails, pate de foie grass, crackers and slices of French bread to go along with his legendary creole oyster soup that was to die for.
I loved his oyster soup. I don’t think that I have ever tried a recipe anywhere that rivaled his version.
The most anticipated part of the evening for me and others was his thick, creamy homemade eggnog, topped with frothy whipped egg whites doused with a touch of cinnamon and nutmeg on top. There was always rum and whiskey on the side for those adults who imbibed.
Beginning when I was a preteen, my parents would allow me to stay up late to attend Midnight Mass and participate in their réveillon celebration. When it was time, my parents would chase me out of the kitchen to go get ready for late-night mass.
There would always be a beautiful new Christmas dress, socks and shoes waiting, along with a hat or mantilla head covering, as required in those days. When I heard the church bells tolling, I always knew two things were imminent: the first was that it was time to head to the church for an enchanting, seemingly holier High Mass Christmas service.
The other was my building excitement knowing that when we returned home, the entertainment of family and friends streaming through our home would begin, before they headed to their homes to finish their own holiday preparations.
For me, the joy of the réveillon was what I now realize – our family tradition was really about the awakening of spirit and celebrating with family and friends all the symbolism that the holiday season brings. What better way to share in this joy than through food and kinship.
Though this tradition was dying off following World War II, the New Orleans restaurant scene resurrected the Réveillon practice in the 1990s. It’s been a multitude of years since I have hosted a réveillon in my own home. Maybe its time that I resurrected this beloved tradition.
Here’s a link for an oyster recipe that is like my Dad’s recipe.
For me, the joy of the réveillon was what I now realize – our family tradition was really about the awakening of spirit and celebrating with family and friends all the symbolism that the holiday season brings.