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New Year's traditions with a New Orleans state of mind

Editor's note: This column first ran in 2012, but my New Year's Eve ritual continues. This year, we will be heading once again into the Quarter, which promises to be lively: Alabama and Ohio fans already are packing the city for the Sugar Bowl, and events there range from a Dr. John gala at Le Petit to a Symphony in the Sky fireworks spectacular. Click here for music writer Shane Colman's New Year's Eve concert round-up. Whatever your own celebration entails, enjoy!

Newly renovated Carousel Bar makes for a sweet spot for New Year's revelry.

Renovated Carousel Bar makes for a sweet spot for New Year's revelry.

I’m leery of rituals. Not the religious kind, but the personal ones.

For me, rituals are traditions gone amok. You know, the kind of thing that one must do, no matter what, turning meaningful repetition into meaningless repetition. I have a friend who, whenever she visits New Orleans, not only must visit the same block of Magazine Street to shop in a particular store there, but also buys a ritual black and gold fleur-de-lis t-shirt. (Granted, one can never own too many black and gold fleur-de-lis t-shirts, but still …)

Perhaps this aversion to repetition is just my excuse for eschewing New Year’s resolutions: For me, too often meaningless, too frequently ritualistic (that diet and exercise thing again?).

Stewart, however, loves traditions, which is odd considering the otherwise utter spontaneity (read: lack) of planning in his day-to-day life. For him, tradition can entail anything from the requisite parlor games of Thanksgiving (read about same here) to the fact that my grandmother’s chair belongs in the right-hand corner of the front parlor.

I’m always hankering to move grandma’s chair into the den. Or, heaven forbid, the bedroom. (I may get this genetically from my parents, as in childhood I would arrive home from school once or twice a year to discover that all the furniture in the house had been switched around, as though a benign wind had blown through and rearranged our lives. But I digress.)

A friend who knows us well asked me last week if Stewart has a tradition for New Year’s Eve.

Actually, he does. And this one has the best qualities of tradition: It is repetitive enough to be, well, traditional, but random enough not to become ritualistic. (Are you still with me here?)

Since Hurricane Katrina, we have headed to the French Quarter every December 31st, where we follow a sort-of set itinerary through some of the city’s most colorful, historic and meaningful institutions.

Of course, I mean bars.

The tradition lies in the places we visit, the spontaneity in what we find and do there.

As usual, our first stop was the Carousel Bar at the Monteleone Hotel on Royal Street. And as usual, the place was jammed with a bejeweled and roisterous crowd, immediately making me feel underdressed and overly red-nosed.

But, cher, this is New Orleans. A passing waiter, advised of my sore throat, detoured at once through the hotel kitchen to mix up a hot toddy – whisky, hot water, lemon juice and honey, served steaming in a pilsner-shaped glass. (Exactly what my teetotaling grandfather used to medicate us with.)

We sat bar-side as I sipped, and watched the newly restored Carousel Bar slowly rotate past – its lacquered wooden seatbacks bearing exquisite lions and tigers, elephants and the occasional zebra. Suddenly 2012 seemed a better prospect indeed.

Next stop was the rooftop bar at the Royal Orleans hotel, a poolside watering hole offering one of the best views of the city anywhere. We discovered upon arrival at the seventh floor that only guests with keys are now granted ingress (surely that wasn’t so last year?).

Most years, we head next to Napoleon House for a (ritualistic, I confess) Pimm’s Cup. From there, if the weather and crowds cooperate, we stop by Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop, half a block from our first New Orleans apartment and a longtime hangout we frequented back in the days when Lily manned the grand piano there.

On Saturday, we shortened the tour (tradition, not ritual, remember?) and headed straight for Café du Monde and a late-night supper of beignets. Party hats, babies, locals, tourists, young, old, surely a melting pot of all the humanity celebrating the cusp of this new year in this old city.

As tradition dictates, we ended our evening at the free concert on the river side of Jackson Square, crunched among revelers sitting and standing, drinking and dancing.

This year we again "got Crunk," and were entertained by the antics of the Lagniappe Brass Band and, later, Hugo the Hornet (who knew he could rock the house?).

We didn’t linger for this year’s lighted fleur de lis to slide down the pole onto the roof of the Jax Brewery at the Cinderella hour, but instead headed shortly before midnight back to the car to make our way home amid firecrackers, traffic jams and tipsy bicyclers.

Traditions can be the best, especially if you tackle them with a little spontaneity.

But that hot toddy thing – that has ritual written all over it.

Renee Peck, a former feature editor and writer at The Times-Picayune, is editor of NolaVie.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]