Christmas week in Louisiana is a whirlwind of decorating, caroling, parties and exchanging gifts with friends and family. Christmas today is far different from the way it was celebrated in South Louisiana in most of the 19th century, when it was mainly a religious holiday and most often a fast day.
David Floyd, director of the LSU Rural Life Museum, said that Louisiana falls into two distinct areas — the Upland South and the Gulf Coast South.
“Geographers call the northern part of the state, the Anglo-Saxon Protestant part, the Upland South,” Floyd said. “The lower part of the state is the Caribbean mix of French, Spanish, Acadians, Germans, Islenos (from the Canary Islands) and Africans. It’s predominantly Roman Catholic in its economy, customs and language. It’s more connected to the Caribbean than to the Northeast and Atlantic states.”
Until the late 19th century, people in the Upland South celebrated in the Victorian English manner of a more festive Christmas, while in the southern part of the state, Christmas was a solemn day of prayer and contemplation.
“People were going to Midnight Mass, having some type of refreshments and late supper, and on Christmas Day you fasted,” Floyd said. It was also a day of rest for the plantation workers, who generally got extra food or such special foods as syrup.
In South Louisiana, the big celebration was Twelfth Night, the celebration of the Three Kings and the bringing of gifts of the Magi. “Twelfth Night was bigger than Mardi Gras at one time,” Floyd said. “Twelfth Night is when you had gift-giving and sumptuous feasts. People even went in costume.”
According to tradition, Prince Albert, the German-born husband of Queen Victoria, brought the Christmas tree to Victorian England. By the mid-19th century, Americans including some in the northern part of Louisiana had adopted the custom of the Christmas tree. “In the Gulf Coast South, you start seeing the Christmas tree coming into people’s houses about 1890 and in some not until the 20th century. So it’s relatively late that you have the Christmas tree in Catholic areas of South Louisiana,” Floyd said. “After that, it was pretty common.”
Even in the Upland South, people would have gotten Christmas trees in the woods.
“It’s no telling what they got,” Floyd said. “It could have been a cedar or pine tree, but they didn’t have the big trees. You would have had a tabletop tree.”
And, said Floyd, the Christmas tree was not put up the weekend of Thanksgiving. Generally the family cut the tree on Christmas Eve and decorated it after the children went to sleep. “Many times, Santa Claus brought the tree,” he said. “When you went to bed, there was nothing. When you woke up, there was a decorated tree.”
The lights on the tree would have been candles, which were put in candle holders that were available by the 1870s. They were hung or clamped on the branches. “In the morning, they would have woken to the smell of candles with the pine,” Floyd said.
From diaries and memoirs, historians have learned how early Christmas trees were decorated with such homemade items as little paper cups filled with treats, popcorn and paper chains, birds’ nests and paper stars.
“We know that a lot of them were decorated with odd things like old watches and beads,” Floyd said.
One of the earliest Christmas traditions used in both sections of the state is the Christmas wreath, which was made with local vines like muscadine or smilax. In the northern part, wreaths were placed on the doors and windows. In the south, the wreath became the Advent wreath, which was placed on a table. It contained five candles — pink for the first Sunday of December, three purple candles for the remaining Sundays in December, and a white candle for Christmas Eve.
Homes were decorated with native greenery and berries from the yard. Among the favorites were ardisia, holly and nandina, which was known as the quinine plant.
Children in the northern part of the state hung stockings, which were filled with fruit, nuts and, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fireworks such as sparklers and Roman candles. This custom later spread to the South along with the custom of giving small gifts such as sachets, Bibles and prayer books or personal items such as walking sticks for men or small items of jewelry for women.
“Plain folks would have made toys for their children, like a tambourine out of a lard can or a wagon made out of simple wood,” Floyd said. The Rural Life Museum has on display a collection of homemade toys including a large wooden block, probably part of a set of four or five blocks.
Christmas was an especially exciting time for families living on the sugarcane plantations since December was also part of the grinding season. “When they had the harvest in and made the crop for the year, there would be wonderful by-products like lecuit,” a thick mass of sugar that forms after the molasses has been cooked down, Floyd said. Kids would take balls of the lecuit and suck on them like a kind of cane taffy. There were also pralines and syrup cakes. And for the families in the north, there were the wonderful citrus fruits from the southern part of the state along with sacks of oysters that would be available in December.
Although Louisiana is known worldwide for its bonfires on the levees, Floyd said he believes they are “more of a 20th-century thing coming out of the German section of the state.”
“They say they were built to lead Papa Noel along his way,” Floyd said. “You don’t see them anywhere else but along the Lower River Road in Lower St. James Parish and down.”