Wednesday, December 21, 2022
By Molly Reid Cleaver, senior editor, and Terri Simon, associate editor

For a city in the subtropics, New Orleans has had no trouble making its mark on the wintry landscape of holiday recordings. In the golden age of midcentury Christmas music, New Orleans–born recording stars such as Mahalia Jackson, Louis Armstrong, and Louis Prima contributed tracks to compilation albums put out by tire companies Firestone and Goodyear in partnership with major record labels.  

Fats Domino jazzed up a classic with his 1993 version of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.” Dr. John gave “Frosty the Snowman” a similar treatment when he lent his gravelly voice to a 1990 version of the song with Leon Redbone. Aaron Neville’s 1993 album Aaron Neville’s Soulful Christmas, which went platinum in the United States, is almost entirely made up of classic Christmas standards. The only exception is “Louisiana Christmas Day,” a zydeco-tinged number about making it home in time for a Christmas fais do-do.  

Swamp pop godfather Johnnie Allan's ho-ho-ho gallavants through “C’est Christmas dans la Louisiane (It’s Christmas Time in Louisiana)”—a two-stepping holiday-party banger if there ever was one. Even Justin Wilson, Cajun chef of ’70s TV fame, got in on the action, bringing his trademark accent to a trad-jazz rendition of “Randolph, the Rouge Nosed Reindeer.”  

Louisianians don’t only put their own spin on classic Christmas songs. There is an entire subgenre of tunes that, while they might not be traditional for people in other places, can be heard at parties, on the radio, and ’round the fire throughout South Louisiana during the holidays. Here’s a sampling of local favorites: 

1. "The 12 Yats of Christmas," Benny Grunch and the Bunch

“The 12 Yats of Christmas” has been on heavy holiday rotation since its release in 1990. In their version of the traditional English carol, Benny Grunch and the Bunch replace drummers, maids-a-milking, and assorted birds gifted by a true love with a crawfish caught in Arabi, three French breads, and a bevy of other gifts from “my maw-maw." Grunch and his band use exaggeratedly Yatty accents to work in regional phrases (“ate by ya mama’s” for the eighth item) and shout out local businesses. 

Part of the staying power of “The 12 Yats of Christmas” is its ability to trigger nostalgia. When the song was released almost a quarter century ago, New Orleans’s shrinking population was struggling to recover from the oil bust of the early 1980s and from a regional recession. Iconic local businesses mentioned in the song—K&B, Schwegmann’s, McKenzie’s—felt the pinch. K&B’s and Schwegmann’s multiple locations were replaced by national chains or shut down in the late ’90s; the original McKenzie’s bakery closed its doors in 2000. 

Grunch and the Bunch were aware of New Orleans’s changing economy and its effect on the local cultural landscape. "Yats” is part of a trilogy of Christmas songs, all of which engage, albeit playfully, with the loss that accompanies economic development and gentrification. In “Santa and His Reindeer Used to Live Right Here,” Kris Kringle, tired of working through hurricanes and having his sleigh towed away, leaves for the North Pole. “Ain’t Dere No More” is a more direct critique: Canal Street is “just hotels. More are on the way.” Current debates about gentrification, the incursion of national chains in the local business landscape, affordable housing, and short-term rentals have ensured that “Yats” is still relevant—and its simple, catchy tune still slaps.

2. "Christmas in New Orleans," Louis Armstrong; James Andrews

Over the course of the late 1940s and 1950s, as Louis Armstrong took his already significant fame to stratospheric levels, he minted several locally flavored holiday classics. In 1953 he released “’Zat You, Santa Claus?” and “Cool Yule” on a 78 for Decca. Three years later he cut “Christmas in New Orleans,” a laidback stroll through poetic images of “magnolia trees sparkling bright” as well as Southern tropes like “fields of cotton, wintry white” and “a Dixieland Santa Claus.” James Andrews covered the song for the 1997 compilation A New Orleans Christmas, which has become a local favorite.

3. "Pimp My Sleigh," Houseman

This showcase for vocalist Theryl “Houseman” DeClouet stands alongside such funky monuments to Santa flyness as Rufus Thomas’s “I’ll Be Your Santa” or Albert King’s “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin’.” Houseman, best known as lead singer of the New Orleans jam band Galactic, recorded the song for the compilation album Christmas Gumbo (2004). The record also features “Soul Queen of New Orleans” Irma Thomas on “Christmas without the Creole,” a live-oaks-and-bayous variation on the old “wish I could be home for the holidays” chestnut. 

4. "Dreidel Song," Gypsyphonic Disko, featuring Katey Red

As Gypsyphonic Disko, DJ Quickie Mart and Galactic’s Ben Ellman blend seemingly disparate genres like hip-hop and klezmer to create songs that embody both the diversity of New Orleans’s musical traditions and its people’s love for a sweaty dance floor. With “Dreidel Song,” released in 2012, Quickie Mart and Ellman were joined by bounce trailblazer Katey Red. “Dreidel Song” starts with the standard lyrics to the time-honored children’s song, but soon shifts, with Red’s voice telling listeners to “gimme that gelt” and “get on the floor.” Like the song, the video, which features a craps-style game of dreidel and burlesque performer Trixie Minx lighting a menorah and suggestively spinning an oversized dreidel, seamlessly blends New Orleans bounce into a holiday staple.

5. A Very Threadhead Holiday, various artists

The 2009 compilation album released by New Orleans label Threadhead Records wins the award for most songs about getting lit during the holidays. On “Drunk This Christmas,” Paul Sanchez croons about “rot-gut Christmas cheer,” conjuring visions of cheap grocery store eggnog and Fireball. Alex McMurray’s bearded elf turns out to be not so jolly—quite a messy drunk, biting the head off a doll—on “Santa, Let Me Call You a Cab.” But not every song is overserved: sousaphonist Matt Perrine lays down a dead-serious, thumping tuba rendition of “Carol of the Bells,” a musical minute as bracing as a steep downhill sled ride.

6. "Make It Jingle," Big Freedia 

It’s not easy to choose just one Big Freedia song to include on a holiday playlist. The “Queen Diva” of bounce music, Freedia has released two Christmas-themed EPs—2016’s A Very Big Freedia Christmazz and 2020’s Big Freedia’s Smokin Santa Christmas—and was featured on “Jingle Dem Bells,” from RuPaul’s 2015 Christmas album. He’s reworked well-known songs like “Jingle Bell Rock” into booty-bouncing hits that are simultaneously familiar, foreign, and—most important—fun. But Freedia’s real holiday gifts to listeners are his original songs. In “So Frosty,” Freedia mixes braggadocio with wintry wordplay to claim his title as ice queen and put snowflakes in their place. “Santa is a Gay Man” weaves traditional Santa iconography into a queer Christmas anthem about an aging man reconsidering his life and love choices at the holidays.  

“Make It Jingle,” which appeared on the soundtrack to the 2016 movie Office Christmas Party, is one of Freedia’s more mainstream Yuletide offerings, with tamer lyrics—and fewer double entendres about coming down chimneys—than songs like “Better Be.” Still, “Make It Jingle” maintains the core elements of Freedia’s other celebratory songs. It’s a high-energy hit that’s full of dance call-outs designed to make listeners jingle their keys and jiggle their bodies.

For more holiday music from South Louisiana, check out our "Happy holidays, Louisiana style" Spotify playist.

About The Historic New Orleans Collection

Founded in 1966, The Historic New Orleans Collection is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to the stewardship of the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Follow THNOC on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.