New Orleans finds the holiday spirit

With little to celebrate about, residents accept gift of generosity, cling to message of hope


NEW ORLEANS -- Father James Tarantino tried all week to compose his Christmas homily, searching for the right message of thankfulness and hope. He'd lived through the flood with his congregation, watched men climb the tower to ring the bells with a hammer after the power went out, seen families slog through the muck to hold Mass in a darkened chapel. He wanted a sermon of particular relevance and poignancy this year.

But Tarantino also had the broken furnace to deal with, and the organist lost her home and hadn't returned. And there were the funerals. Already five were scheduled by Wednesday, and families kept calling about relatives who had died during or after Hurricane Katrina and had yet to receive a proper funeral.

"It's so sad to see the suffering, and the difficulty that so many people are experiencing here now," Tarantino said, sitting on the balcony of Our Lady of the Rosary's 19th-century rectory, overlooking Bayou St. John in the center of the city.

"But there is hope as well. The joy people have in seeing everyone again, the stories of sharing, the generosity of complete strangers, the gratitude and the sense of family and community - New Orleans definitely has experienced the spirit of Christmas. That's what I want to tell them."

Christian traditions run deep in New Orleans, a city settled by French Catholics and built around its stately St. Louis Cathedral.

Even its most celebrated holiday - Mardi Gras - has religious roots because it is held the day before Ash Wednesday.

But with the city still mostly vacant, still largely paralyzed by its gutted homes and littered streets and empty shops, even Christmas has not endured unscathed.

The Washington family on Jefferson Davis Parkway is celebrating Christmas without lights, because they can't spare the gasoline from their generator to illuminate a tree.

Karen Terranova, who owns one of the only open markets along Esplanade Avenue, won't be able to cook her Christmas dinner, because her home was flooded and she doesn't have a kitchen.

Garren Mickey on the West Bank is spending Christmas without his family, because everyone is scattered around Louisiana, Texas, New York and Illinois this year. Roy Bingham is spending Christmas without a home.

His apartment in Chalmette was ruined by the storm, and now he lives in a trailer in the parking lot of the KFC where he fries chicken seven days a week.

And perhaps most conspicuously, Christmas arrived in New Orleans this year almost entirely devoid of children. Most of the city's schools won't open until next fall, and so few of the city's children have returned to their homes. The Algiers United Methodist Church canceled its annual caroling because only three members of the youth group have returned.

Just as Hurricane Katrina created a community of survivors, where everyone's unique story of perseverance adds to the collective sameness of post-hurricane life, so has the arrival of Christmas created thousands of stories of sadness, or acceptance, and sometimes hope.

"I don't have the Christmas spirit this year," said Earl Barconey, who lived in one of New Orleans' notorious public housing complexes before the hurricane, but now lives on a cruise ship docked along the banks of the Mississippi River.

"We don't have any children here, no grandchildren around, no families, no homes to go to. I'm not much in the mood for a celebration."

Pat Peebles still wants to celebrate.

"I think it's a beautiful Christmas - the kindness we see, the volunteers, the togetherness," said Peebles, as she and her son, Joey, sat in the glow of the only Christmas tree - and one of the only signs of electricity - on their mostly empty block in Mid-City. "The hurricane has made me believe in mankind, that we're not all jaded and selfish. I see it as God working with New Orleans."

"You wouldn't believe the stories you hear all day long," said Dan Guerra, one of the area's few Christmas tree sellers this year.

"I just had a lady tell me she didn't care how tall the tree was because she didn't have a ceiling."

The French Quarter and downtown area of the city have been almost entirely restored, as have many of New Orleans' suburban communities.

They are awash in lights and wreaths and garland, and every other shop on Decatur Street was broadcasting a selection of Christmas jazz last week.

Visitors there would scarcely have noticed a change. The Lakeside Mall in suburban Metairie was clogged with bag-laden shoppers in wool coats, and parking spaces were scarce.

The hurricane even provided one of the mall's greatest attractions, in the form of a wintry diorama complete with blue-tarp roofs and ruined refrigerators at the curb.

Organizers dismantled the hurricane-themed display shortly after it was erected, when customers complained, but quickly reassembled it when far more customers objected to its removal.

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