Christmas in New Orleans: somber but hopeful

Like thousands of others in southeastern Louisiana, Frances and Keith Fawcett are spending the holidays repairing their roof, clearing debris, and hanging Sheetrock.

But inside their gutted home in Slidell, La., there is a Christmas tree - bare since all their ornaments, along with the rest of their possessions, were lost to the tidal surge that accompanied hurricane Katrina. Mr. Fawcett even raised his sunken sailboat and perched a star on the mast, "just to say we're alive."

Those who have returned to the New Orleans area will be celebrating Christmas a little differently this year. They may not hang wreaths or lights, but that's irrelevant, they say.

This year, Christmas in and around New Orleans will feel more like the original: somber, but filled with a sense of hope for the future.

"We are all very cognizant of our neighbors and family who aren't able to be back, and we are praying for them. So for those of us who are able to be back, it's a time of both reflection and gratitude," says Kathleen Alter, head of French Quarter Festivals.

Traditionally, Christmas in New Orleans is filled with tours of decorated antebellum homes, riverboat caroling cruises, and Cajun cooking demonstrations. But this year, celebrations have been curtailed.

Ms. Alter and her group were able to put together only four Christmas concerts at St. Louis Cathedral - though she admits doing so was harder than the 20-plus she normally coordinates this time of year.

Those who are here say they appreciate the efforts put into making things as normal as possible.

Sitting in the chandelier-lit cathedral, Rodney Mach and Harriett Hanshaw say they came to the Christmas concert tonight because it's tradition - and because they needed help getting in the holly-jolly mood.

"We've been replacing shingles and cleaning out refrigerators instead of baking cookies and putting up lights," says Mr. Mach.

Though New Orleans residents are known for their love of decoration, few have had the time to spend on displays. But those homes that do have decorations immediately catch the eye and lift the spirit - and remind others what time of year it is. Big red ribbons adorn historic homes in the Garden District, and the French Quarter is light-filled once again. Even in neighborhoods that were totally devastated, a random wreath or ribbon can be found.

Still, for many New Orleanians trying to rebuild their lives, both here and around the country, getting into the spirit has been hard. The holidays in general seemed to come more quickly than expected.

"I guess it's because we lost a month," says Karen Simone, whose home in Metairie was flooded. She and her sister are wandering through the Botanical Garden at the annual Christmas celebration in City Park.

The two came tonight to buy a few gifts from the local artists who have made it back and set up shop inside the festival. Even though it is raining, they make their way down the brick path to where Mr. Bingle is on display.

The two-story flying snowman, complete with green holly wings, is a symbol of Christmas in New Orleans. For decades, he was a fixture at the Maison Blanche department store on Canal Street and was being stored at a warehouse just blocks from the Industrial Canal when hurricane Katrina hit.

Every building in the warehouse was destroyed - except the one housing Mr. Bingle, says Barbara Hammett, vice chairman of Celebration in the Oaks. "He is a survivor, just like the rest of us here."

She says when organizers were considering a scaled-down Christmas celebration, they had no idea what the response would be. But when they opened the doors on Dec. 9, 5,000 people showed up, and it's been packed every night since, says Ms. Hammett.

"The city is starved for some normalcy, and seeing something like this going on gives them hope," she says.

Indeed, says Ms. Simone as she and her sister reach the giant snowman and let out a laugh, doing things they do every year is important to the healing process. But no matter how normal things seem to be, this Christmas is different.

"It's a purer spirit this year, less commercial," says Simone. "It's more about comfort and joy."

In fact, some say they aren't giving gifts at all this year, in part because they have been shopping for replacement refrigerators, hair dryers, and waffle irons since the storm hit. But it's also because the loss of their possessions produced a different outlook on life.

"People seem to be taking more stock in themselves than gathering possessions this Christmas," says Rusty Roussel, whose home on the west bank had minor damage.

His large family always spends the holiday together, and this year it seemed fitting to have everyone home in New Orleans. He expects to give personal tours of the destruction for those relatives who haven't seen it yet, and to do some caroling in Jackson Square.

But there won't be much gift giving, says Mr. Roussel - just a few things for the kids, including iPods and cellphones, which are already wrapped and under the tree. He purchased most of his gifts online.

Indeed, many stores are still closed or have limited supplies, and online shopping is just easier this year. Jacqueline Fry, for instance, says that unless she could walk to a store in her neighborhood, she simply ordered gifts online.

"The stores are hard to get to because many of the traffic lights are not working, and there are so many cars on the road," she says.

Other people are buying only New Orleans-themed gifts to support the local economy. Linda Boaz and her relatives have been coming into the city regularly this holiday season to shop, eat, and attend concerts in an effort to help the rebirth.

They even have Christmas Eve dinner reservations at Arnaud's in the French Quarter.

"Christmas is not going to be so materialistic this year," says Ms. Boaz, sitting inside St. Louis Cathedral before the concert. "Once you get past that aspect, it's easy to get into the spirit because we have so much to be grateful for."

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