After midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, famished French Creoles of Louisiana returned home for a feast of epicurean proportions. After a day of fasting, Catholics revitalized themselves with a lavish buffet beginning around 2:00 a.m. This 19th-century tradition, called Réveillon, derives its name from the French word for “awakening.”
While the French celebrated with escargots, foie gras, and chestnut-stuffed turkey, those in the American South adapted the lineup to highlight regional delicacies. In New Orleans, they feasted on daub glacé, a beef-and-veal stock jelly served on crackers, chicken and oyster gumbos, game pies, turtle soup, soufflé, and grillades over grits. Merrymakers drank wine, brandy, frothy eggnog, and coffee. Those who could stomach dessert finished the meal with Bûche de Noël (Yule log cake), or croquembouche, a tower of pastry balls bound by threads of caramel.
Revelers hit the sheets after dawn, stuffed and drunk. Their servants, often slaves, were left to clean up the mess after a long day of cooking and baking, preparing the feast while the family attended Mass, and tending the table for hours. Following the abolition of slavery in 1865, participants found the event less feasible to orchestrate, and festivities were overtaken by other American Christmas traditions within a century.
Réveillon faded into obscurity, where it remained until the 1990s, when New Orleans restaurateurs resurrected the name. Chefs at upscale eateries in the French Quarter now host dinners inspired by the luxurious holiday feast, with a few changes. Updates include an earlier dining time, no religious association, and compensation for everyone involved.
Need to Know
Dozens of restaurants in New Orleans host modern iterations of the Réveillon dinner throughout the month of December, featuring special prix-fixe French Creole menus. These meals are served during normal business hours, so midnight Mass is no longer a prerequisite.