Holiday in the old neighborhood

Photo by Kerri McCaffety -- Fragrant evergreen branches and gold-painted pine cones decorate the elegant parlor of the historic Gallier House
Photo by Kerri McCaffety -- Fragrant evergreen branches and gold-painted pine cones decorate the elegant parlor of the historic Gallier House

Volunteers stage a day of tours and caroling

The 2012 Patio Planters Holiday Home Tour on Sunday is expected to attract more than 600 locals and visitors eager to peek inside some of the French Quarter’s magnificent homes, all dressed up for Christmas.

A few hours later, Patio Planters volunteers will begin handing out candles and song sheets to thousands of carolers in Jackson Square for the annual free Christmas singalong.

“Last year we printed 9,000 song booklets and had 50 left,” said Patio Planters President Thomas McGinn.

“Not everyone gets a book, like small children, so we had well over 10,000 people.

“It’s beautiful to see so many people singing and happy,” McGinn said. “And they really do sing, even those who sing badly like me!”

This year the three-hour afternoon tour will feature five private homes, including the rectory at St. Louis Cathedral plus one museum home, the Gallier House, 1132 Royal St., built in the late 1850s.

The Gallier House decorations include painted pine cones, ribbon candy, St. Nick dolls and other items traditional for the holidays in the mid-19th century.

“It’s not a three-hour tour like ‘Gilligan’s Island,’ ” said Home Tour Chair Julie Hunt-Juneau. “It’s a self-guided walking tour, so everyone can choose their own route and go at their own pace.” The $20 admission comes with a map and brief history of each location.

“I get information at the Historic New Orleans Collection,” Hunt-Juneau said, “and I include interesting bits from the homeowners, like if the house has ghosts.”

McGinn points tour-goers in the right direction from his motor scooter and feels a sense of pride that his organization is responsible for hundreds of excited participants walking through the Quarter with green home-tour maps.

According to tradition, “O Come, All Ye Faithful” is the welcoming song as carolers enter the square. For more than a decade, Archbishop Philip Hannan led the crowd in singing his favorite “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer.” This year, in his memory, a group of children will sing “Rudolph” on the stage.

Patio Planters of the Vieux Carre started as a French Quarter garden club in 1946. It was in that first year, just after World War II, that the president of the club, Mrs. Parker Harris, was inspired to invite locals to gather and sing in the square.

Over time the garden club evolved into a volunteer organization whose mission is to beautify and preserve the French Quarter.

The members of Patio Planters work hard to keep the 66-year-old caroling tradition free and open to the public. To cover $18,000 in costs for candles, city fees, a temporary stage and keepsake song booklet, the organization holds three annual fundraisers. Their courtyard tour, Secret Gardens of the Vieux Carre, takes place in October, The White Elephant auction and yard sale in November, and The Patio Planters Holiday Home Tour in December.

McGinn expects Mayor Mitch Landrieu to attend the singalong, as well as Council members Jackie Clarkson and Kristin Palmer.

After about an hour of caroling, the evening ends with “Silent Night,” a sea of flickering candles flows away from Jackson Square, and the Patio Planters volunteers will get some well-deserved heavenly peace, at least until next fall.