Réveillon Revival

How the Brennan family, among the Crescent City’s most successful restaurateurs, breathed new life into an old French tradition.

By the time the very merry divorcée Adelaide Brennan―a glamorous redhead reputed to be the most beautiful woman in all of New Orleans―descended the winding stairway of the Greek Revival home she shared with her sister, Ella, their annual Christmas Eve bash was in full swing. Many close friends, among them celebrity pals like Raymond Burr and Rock Hudson, and most of the large Brennan clan gathered for the strictly black-tie, Uptown affair, which the sisters hosted from the mid-1960s until the ’80s.

Guests laughed and lingered among the extravagant decorations, all coordinated in Adelaide’s favorite color. Pink candles flickered around the room, and pink poinsettias, ordered from the florist a year in advance, adorned the house. Adelaide hung large pink bows “wherever she could think to put them,” says Ella, now 83. Each year everyone anticipated Adelaide’s fashionably late entrance, and year after year, she delivered her drama.

Tradition revived

The soirees were a nod to a nearly extinct Crescent City holiday tradition, known as the Réveillon, which translates loosely to “awakening” in French. In the 1800s, the New Orleans Creoles, a multicultural group of Catholics that included French immigrants, adopted the French tradition. As in the old country, celebrants fasted before taking communion at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, and then they rewarded their piety with luxurious, prolonged feasts in the wee hours after mass. “It was a celebration that also served a practical purpose,” says Gene Bourg, a longtime New Orleans food writer and friend of Ella Brennan. “If you fasted till 1 A.M., you’d be damn hungry.”

Réveillon tradition dictated that the Brennan parties include a lavish late-night buffet with game birds, rich gumbos, and seafood delicacies prepared in the sophisticated, decidedly urban Creole style. For dessert, there were elaborate cakes, like bûche de Noël, a “jelly roll” filled with chocolate cream.

Live jazz and dancing would follow in the ballroom. “In those days, the men would actually dance,” Ella says with a laugh. “It was glorious. We cocktailed and cocktailed and cocktailed.” Every year, the scene was the same. Even for a woman known for her larger-than-life style, Adelaide’s Réveillon was special. Down she’d come in some beaded floor-length gown, fur around her shoulders, long gloves above her elbows. “I can just see her up there, with a long cigarette holder in one hand and a glass of Champagne in the other,” Ella recalls of her sister, who passed away in 1983. “She was like our Auntie Mame.”

 

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