Early Christmas in Northwest Louisiana
By Ann Middleton
The archives of the Historical Center hold numerous accounts of what Christmas was like in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Bossier Parish. Before the 1880s, Christmas decorations were usually garlands of native Northwest Louisiana trees suchas cedar, pine and holly. By the 1880s, however, many church, school and home parties featured a tree that was supported in a large jar of wet sand or by two cross pieces of heavy wood.
Christmas Eve was the traditional time for tree trimming. Individual wires held candleson tree branches, with homemade ornaments and natural items from the outdoors being the other decorations. Popcorn and whole cranberries were strung to make garlands. Sweet gum balls and pine cones were dusted with flour paste or covered with foil to add sparkle to the tree. The December 25, 1866 diary of one Northwest Louisiana homemaker told "Yesterday all busy preparing the Christmas tree and cooking for the children. We had it well filled, or hung, with beautiful presents, not one was forgotten." On December 25, 1882, L. T. Sanders wrote in his journal "We went up early to Mary's, and Ibis and I went to Redland and helped all day to dress the Christmas tree, etc. That night a large crowd gathered. We had a nice tree and plenty of supper. Santa Claus distributed the presents. We had an essay on home by Mr. J. Swindle. Our children received several presents, mostly from us."
Other Christmas decorations might include kissing bells that were made from a rawpotato wrapped with wire to form a hanger. Then fresh greens and mistletoe were inserted to cover the potato and a red ribbon attached underneath. Spanish moss, magnolia leaves, ivy and fern, holly and nandina berries were used to make wreaths and garlands to be hung on doors and columns.
The tradition of Santa Claus and hanging stockings for him to fill was an established custom in this area by the 1850s. In the December 23, 1880 issue of The Bossier Bannerthe editor remembered how boys had envied girls their long stockings at Christmas time when he was young. In homes where stockings were not hung, Santa would fill boxesor baskets with nuts, fruit, candy and perhaps a toy or book for the children. In its December 20, 1883 issue The Bossier Banner reported that Santa Claus was at Dr. W. J.Mobley's store in Bellevue.
Historical Center archives contain numerous other references to Santa Claus and Christmas presents. In a December 1863 letter to his wife Mattie, Thomas Fort wrote "I bought some candy and picans for Santa Claus today." In his journal entry for December 25, 1876 L. T. Sanders documented "Gave Lee an axe as a Christmas gift as a reward forhis advance in his studies and industry. He has been through the 1st Reader 3 times and is only 6 years old. He seems to appreciate the gift very much." Three years later Sanders' Christmas Day entry was "The children got some 'Santa Claus.' Jannie got a china doll. Lee had bought himself a hat. I gave Charlie one and Lee and Hattie a book, each of them. I love to encourage them to study. Lee had worked and made the money that he paid for his hat." In 1880 and 1881 respectively, Sanders wrote in his journals "… the children got apples and candy. Leon got a ball & Jannie a pair of vases;" "The children only got some candy."
In 1987 Clare M. Nelson researched Christmas customs in Northwest Louisiana 1850-1880. In her study she noted that following a night of dancing that rarely ended before midnight, Christmas morning brought early visits from friends and family who enjoyed the eggnog offered by hosts and hostesses.
Ms. Nelson also related that the main Christmas meal was served at mid-day. It included the usual fare of meat, vegetables, relishes, chow-chow, cucumber pickles and pickledpeaches. Cornbread and beaten biscuits were eaten with butter churned at home. Oysters were a special Christmas treat, often brought as a gift to the hostess. Desserts would include cakes, puddings and pies. As an example of the ingenuity of thesepioneers, "vinegar pie" would be made when no fruit was available or affordable. Suchpies were said to have tasted remarkably like lemon pie. Because of their extravagantprice of ten cents each, coconuts were a special Christmas present. After the milkhad been drained from the coconut and the meat grated for a cake, even the shell wascarefully saved and used as a dipper bowl or an ornament for the house.
Whatever your decorations and gifts and whatever is on your Christmas dinner menu this 2011 Christmas, all of us at the Historical Center wish you the happiest Christmas ever!