- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 20, 2012

NEW ORLEANS — Christmastime for Tyson and Ginny Graham means driving nearly 300 miles south of their Columbus, Miss., home to New Orleans for shopping, holiday concerts and the highlight of their trip — indulging in a grand reveillon dinner.

The elaborate meals, which stem from the old French tradition of eating a lavish meal after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, have become a popular draw for visitors to New Orleans during the holiday season.

In the weeks surrounding Christmas, some 50 restaurants offer four- to five-course meals of pan-roasted oysters, braised pork belly, duck confit, foie gras beignets and other holiday delicacies. The recipes have roots that date back to the beginning of the French city’s nearly 300-year history.

Though some restaurants serve reveillon dinners after midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and after midnight fireworks on New Year's Eve like in the old days, most offer the special menus during regular dinner hours.

“Thank goodness,” Mr. Graham, 71, said with a laugh. “After midnight is a little late for me.”

Mr. Graham said since he and Ginny, his wife of 45 years, discovered the city’s reveillon dinners about 15 years ago, they’ve been to New Orleans almost every December.

“It’s been a great way for us to experience all the restaurants we’ve frequented over the years, but we get to have something a little different,” he said.

The way it works: Restaurants offer fixed-price reveillon menus on top of their regular dinner menu starting in the weeks before Christmas and continuing through New Year's Eve. Reveillon dinner prices can range from $35 to $90 a person depending on the restaurant.

John Magill, a historian and curator at the Historic New Orleans Collection museum and research center in the French Quarter, said reveillon is French for “awakening” and was a term used by early Creoles to describe a meal that followed a celebratory event.

In the 1700s and 1800s, that could be a simple as beignets and cafe au lait at the French Market after a night out at the opera.

“You would eat to revive yourself after an evening event,” Mr. Magill said. “It didn’t always have to be a big heavy meal.”

Reveillons surrounding Christmas and New Year's Eve, however, were grand affairs, he said. Families would spend days preparing a menu of comfort foods such as grits and grillades, gumbo, cakes and pastries, and the New Year's Eve spread would be even more decadent, with oysters, duck and lamb.

The Christmas reveillon traditionally would take place after a full day of fasting for Holy Communion at midnight services.

Mr. Magill talks about reveillons in the 2009 book he co-wrote titled, “Christmas in New Orleans,” which also touches on the long-held tradition of holiday shopping on streetcar-lined Canal Street, caroling in the French Quarter and worshipping at Saint Louis Cathedral.

Richard Stewart, a fifth-generation New Orleanian who is Catholic, said he wasn’t familiar with the old tradition of reveillon until the mid-1980s, when French Quarter restaurant owners began reviving the practice as a way to get more diners during the holidays.

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