The Best Things to do in New Orleans This December
My family has never been one for traditions. We rarely have turkey on Thanksgiving (mostly because it’s the kale of meat), “Christmas” is a family gathering that occurs anytime between December and January 25th, and New Year’s Eve is celebrated with fireworks… or Star Trek… or sometimes just a nap. New Orleans, on the other hand, if full of rich and wonderful traditions that, fortunately for us, has perpetuated for decades despite the better efforts of non-conformists like my family. December, in particular, offers a wealth of wonderful traditions and events for those visiting the city, from the burning of pyres, to a mob of running santas, and grown men beating each other to a pulp over a small, leather ball. You might say New Orleans takes the holiday season pretty seriously.
The Best Things to do in New Orleans This December
1 | Celebrate the Arts
Lafayette Square | Dec 6-9 | 6-9 PM
This is one of my favorite events of the year because it typically (and finally) brings with it some cool weather, and I'm a bit of a sucker for light displays, excuses to walk downtown, and free things. As part of The Arts Council New Orleans' initiative leading up to New Orleans’ 2018 tricentennial, “Light Up NOLA Arts” or LUNA Fête (fête being French for festival or celebration) will set buildings and other surfaces aglow with their light, sound, and art display.
Julia Street Art Walk
300-700 block of Julia Street | Dec 9 | 6-9 PM
This is another great opportunity to explore the area while we have some nice weather, as the galleries on Julia will stay open late and offer complimentary champagne. In fact, you could make a night of art and lights and check out LUNA Fête at the same time-- both are free events!
2 | Caroling in Jackson Square
For some people, the holidays “start” the day after Thanksgiving. For me, it doesn’t feel like Christmas until I’ve grabbed a warm (usually spiked) drink and some friends and listened to the Carolers in Jackson Square. There’s something about standing at the foot of the St. Louis Cathedral, surrounded by a chorus of carolers, candle-lit processions, and local artists. For this 60+ year New Orleans tradition, the square is picturesque, with huge red bows on the light posts and string lights in the bushes. I highly recommend checking it out, and then grabbing a hot chocolate and beignet from Cafe Du Monde on the corner.
3 | Christmas Eve on the Levee
Along the levee | Dec 24th
While the exact origin of the tradition is a bit disputed, the absolute best thing to do in New Orleans during December are the bonfires on the levee. It’s a tradition that’s gone on longer than any New Orleanian can remember, where more than 100 bonfires are lit along a 30-40 mile length of the Mississippi River.
According to folklore, the bonfires on the levee are lit to guide Saint Nick (known locally as Papa Noel) from home to home throughout southern Louisiana. However, more researched historians will likely tell you it’s an appropriated solstice tradition of the Germans who once settled our shores. Though I’ve never had an opportunity to dance circles around these 20-foot high towers of fire while signing my praise to the moon in person, I’m super excited to finally (hopefully) experience it this year.
Have other plans for Christmas Eve? Yeah, that’s fair (I usually do too). Algiers gets in on the fun with their own bonfire and concert December 2nd. Algiers Point would also be a great place to view the Christmas eve Bonfires on the Levee in New Orleans.
4 | Music
There’s never really a bad time to visit New Orleans, but it seems like this December, musicians are feeling extra merry. While I "pepperminted" a few extras in there, here are the must-see (mostly) local New Orleans artists this December.
WILD will play at the House of Blues December 3rd
John Mayer appears at the Smoothie King Center December 5th
Rebirth Brass Band (my personal favorite) plays every Tuesday at The Maple Leaf Bar
Randy Newman appears at the Orpheum Theater December 12th
Gravity A will be at Gasa Gasa December 22nd
Kermit Ruffins is at the Blue Nile every Friday in December and The Little Gem Saloon on December 23rd
Dr. John will be at Tipitina’s on December 29th
Irvin Mayfield is at The Little Gem Saloon from December 20-22 and December 27
Big Freedia is appearing at Gasa Gasa on December 29th & 30th and December 16th at The Art Garage
5 | Get a Little Light-Hearted
Celebration in the Oaks
If you’re struggling to get into the Christmas spirit, then you might want to check out this New Orleans favorite. Spanning a 25-acre park, you’ll find more decorations than you can shake a cinnamon stick at (32,800 feet of rope light, to be exact). The Carousel and rides in Storyland are great for kids, but the botanical gardens and massive elaborately decorated trees are sure to please even the biggest Grinches.
Christmas in Lafreniere Park
While it draws a slightly smaller crowd, I’m a much bigger fan of the lights at Lafreniere Park. It’s much quieter, more peaceful, and a lot cheaper than the former, which means you can bring your kids and write a letter to Santa, or just take a leisurely drive between suspended icicles and merry reindeers.
Take a Cruise Down St. Charles or Magazine Street
If you’re more into self-guided tours, you should check out St. Charles and Magazine Street for your fill of lighted faire. As there’s a higher concentration of both wealth and tourists, you can soak in all lights, oversized red bows, and tinsel in a leisurely drive or stroll down either of these streets.
6 | Go, Sports!
If you want to catch a professional sport while you’re in town (or have some time off) you’re in luck, because there’s a few big games in December.
The biggest this month for the Pelicans (currently 11-10) is against the Golden State Warriors on December 4th and the Philadelphia 76ers on December 10th. The 76ers game will be of particular interest to New Orleans fans that remember the have Ben Simmons, former LSU player, as their forward
Alternatively, the New Orleans Saints, who are currently on-pace (fingers crossed) with our Super Bowl winning year, also have a few exciting games in store for December. We have three home games: Panthers (3rd), Jets (17th), and Falcons (24th). Obviously if you’re in town on Christmas Eve looking for something to do, it’d be worth checking out what will likely be a pretty epic and heated game against the Atlanta Falcons, as it will also be our second-to-last regular season game.
7 | Shop Your List
Of course, Magazine Street is always a great place to go shopping, and a must-see for all tourists. During December, shops typically stay open longer and has holiday decorations galore. Dat Dog has art markets every weekend, if you’re looking for something handmade, or there’s a variety of events going on throughout the month, which you can read about on their website.
Riverwalk Outlet Mall
If you’re looking for some last minute gifts, it’s worth checking out the outlet mall for some deals. There will undoubtedly be a variety of sales going on this December on top of their already low(ish) prices. Afterwards you can meander over to the French Market or Royal Street for some local art.
8 | Parades, Festivals, Shows, & Events
Finally, here’s my catch-all for the assortment of interesting (but sort of miscellaneous) happenings around New Orleans this December:
Beignet Fest (Dec 2nd)
Krewe of Jingle Parade (Dec 2nd)
Bustout Burlesque (Dec 2nd)
Running of the Santas (Dec 9th)
Reindeer Run & Romp + Scavenger Hunt (Dec 9th)
Words and Music Festival (Dec 6-10th)
NOLA ChristmasFest (Dec 21-31st)
Crescent City Countdown (Dec 31st)
World War II Museum (assorted events)
Miracle on Fulton Street (month-long)
Whatever you end up doing, I hope you have a wonderful holiday season and a happy and productive new year!
Want to save a little money while you're out in the city? Read my blog about all the best free things to do in New Orleans on your visit.