A Canadian Family

Natives, French Canadians & Acadians

Christmas in Louisiana in the late 1700s: Acadian and French Canadian Influence

The American who, a century ago, drifted down the Mississippi in the pirogue of those days, would have found himself, as he neared the river’s mouth, in a new and strange land, where all was foreign and novel to him— the language, the people, the very customs, habits and ideas.. The peculiarities of the Louisiana creole he met there were not to be wondered at, for it was the policy of the Spanish government to completely isolate this colony from the world, as it was already isolated by its position. None but Spanish vessels were allowed to enter the Mississippi, and of these only so many, or rather so few, a year; and trade, even with the Spanish West Indies, was contraband.

Occasionally, however, an American drifted down the river from the settlements just then being made on the upper Ohio, for it was almost impossible to keep out these restless adventurers whom the Spaniards viewed with much suspicion and as very dangerous.

A picturesque sight greeted the visitor as he sprang ashore from his pirogue at the public landing place at New Orleans, opposite the Place d’Armes, now Jackson Square. Here, everything was congregated—the Cathedral Church of St. Louis, the convent of the Capuchins, the Government House, the colonial prison or calabosa, and the government warehouses. Around the square stretched the leading boutiques and restaurants of the town; on the side, was the market or Halles, where not only meat, fruit and vegetables were sold, but hats, shoes and handkerchiefs; while in front was the public landing.

Indeed, here was the religious, military, industrial, commercial and social center of the city; here the troops paraded on fete days, and here even the public executions took place, the criminals being either shot or nailed alive in their coffins and then slowly sawed in half. Here, on holidays, all the varied, heterogeneous population of the town gathered; fiery Louisiana creoles, still carrying rapiers, ready for prompt use at the slightest insult to their jealous honor; habitants, fresh from Canada, rude trappers and hunters, voyageurs and coureurs-de-bois ; plain unpretending ‘Cadians from the Attakapas, arrayed in their home-made blue cottonades and redolent of the herds of cattle they had brought with them ; lazy emigre’ nobles, banished to this new world under lettres de cachet for interfering with the king’s petits amours or taking too deep an interest in politics; yellow sirens from San Domingo,speaking a soft bastard French, and looking so languishingly out of the corners of their big black melting eyes, that it was no wonder that they led both young and old astray and caused their cold proud sisters of sang pur many a jealous heart-ache; staid and energetic Germans from ” the German coast,” with flaxen hair and Teutonic names, but speaking the purest of French, come down to the city for supplies; haughty Castilian soldiers, clad in the bright uniforms of the Spanish cazadores ; (sic) dirty Indians of the Houma and Natchez tribes, some free, some slaves; negroes of every shade and hue from dirty white to deepest black, clad only in braguet and shapeless woolen shirts, as little clothing as the somewhat loose ideas of the time and country permitted ; and lastly, the human trash, ex-galley slaves and adventurers, shipped to the colony to get rid of.

Here, too, in the Place d’Armes the stranger could shop cheaper if not better than in the boutiques around it, for half the trade and business of the town was itinerant. Here passed rabbais, or peddling merchants, mainly Catalans and Provencals who, instead of carrying their packs upon their backs, had their goods spread out in a coffin-shaped vehicle which they wheeled before them ; colored marchandes selling callas and cakes; and milk and coffee women, carrying their immense cans well balanced upon their turbaned heads. All through the day went up the never-ceasing cries of the various street hawkers from the ” Barataria! Barataria! ” and the ” callas tous chands / ” in the early morning to the ” belles chandelles! ” that went up, as twilight deepened, from the sturdy negresses who sold the only light of the colony, horrible, dim, ill smelling and smoky candles, made at home from the green wax myrtle.

The American piroqueur who reached this place in the winter of just a century ago would have encountered such a season as has not been seen there since. Ice and snow, usually strangers to southern Louisiana, were everywhere. The orange trees had blackened and withered away, while in the river great floes and bergs of ice floated by, completely cutting off communication between the two banks for weeks together. It was a winter just adapted to Christmas sports, festivities and merriment, to skating and snow-balling, to plum pudding, egg-nog and other warmers and comforters.

The creole, however, was unfortunately ignorant of the glories of the English Christmas, which the people of the more northern colonies had brought over with them from the mother country. The creole Noel is mainly a religious festival, as different from the jolly, noisy, boisterous Christmas of old England as its patron saint ” papa Noel ” is from Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas or Kris Kringle. In fact, it was, like all the other creole holidays, religious rather than secular.

The women of old Louisiana were very devout—as devout as the men were careless and irreligious—and every festival assumed from them a strong religious tinge. The men had plenty to do; they rode, fished, hunted or gambled ; but to the women were left only the church and the dance. They took a leading part, therefore, in every one of the many religious wars that agitated and divided the colony—first, between the Jesuits and Capuchins as to which should have charge of the schools, and afterward between the French and Spanish priests as to the proper language in which to teach the catechism and the advisability of establishing the Inquisition in Louisiana.

Christmas was ushered in with dancing and religion. Upon its eve, the family assembled around the fireside for the reveillons, the wanderings, symbolic of the visit of the Eastern kings to the manger at Bethlehem, and to wait for “the midnight mass.” The younger children had been sent early to bed to dream of the presents that “papa Noel” would bring them. This “papa Noel,” however, was not to be compared with jolly old Santa Claus. His presents were few and trifling—some candy or cakes. And the children looked forward anxiously for that great day ahead—-jour de l’an, New Year’s Day, when papa and mamma would give them ” real ” presents, given openly and not slipped into their stockings. While the young folks dreamed all this, the older ones amused themselves until midnight.

There was every variety of amusement, every species of enjoyment, all the delicacies of the creole kitchen, wine and tafia, always winding up with that great delight of the creole—the dance. The creole woman could not exist without dancing; it was her one great amusement, whether young or old. The matron did not surrender it with marriage, and even when the vile spirit of avoirdupois added to her weight, as it never failed to do in Louisiana, her pretty, well-shaped feet still beat time in unison with the spirit of the music.

With such a love of music, it was not strange that the public balls, given twice a month during the winter, were the great social gatherings for the whole colony, and the cause, too, of half its duels and difficulties. To tread on one’s toes, to brush against one, or to carry off by mistake the lady with whom one was to dance, were ample grounds for a challenge. Everything was arranged so nicely and quickly, even in the ball-room itself. The young man who had received the fearful insult of a crushed corn dropped his lady partner with her chaperorie, and had a few minutes’ conversation with some friend of his. In a very short time everything was arranged. A group of five or six young men would quietly slip out of the ball-room with a careless, indifferent smile on their faces. A proper place was close at hand. Just back of the cathedral was a little plot of ground, known as St. Anthony Square, dedicated to church purposes but never used. A heavy growth of shrubbery and evergreens concealed the central portion of this square from observation ; and here, in the very heart of the town and only a few steps from the public ball-room on the rue d’OrUans, a duel could be carried on comfortably and without the least, danger of interruption. If colechemards, or crcole rapiers, which were generally used, and are to this day, in creole duels, could be obtained, they were brought into use; but, if this was impossible, the young men had to content themselves with sword-canes. According to the French code, the first blood, however slight, satisfied jealous honor. The swords were put up again ; the victorious duelist returned to complete his dance, while his victim went home to bandage himself up.

Of course, nothing of this kind occurred at the reveillons where only friends and relatives were gathered. There, they danced and sang and played games until the bell of the old Cathedral rang out the hour of midnight, when the whole population of the city turned out and flocked to its ancient portals to witness ” the midnight mass,” commemorating, almost in panorama, the story of the birth of Christ. Thus was Christmas ushered in—a day devoted mainly to the Church and the children rather than to those sports and amusements, that boisterous merriment, that makes the English Christmas what it is. There were masses, prayers and communion, but no Christmas dinner, no egg-nog, no mistletoe, no Santa Claus.

It was on New Year’s Day that the great family dinner was given, and all the members of the family gathered in the old mansion, to kiss—for even the men kissed each other—and exchange presents. If it was in the heart of the city, the old homestead was of brick or plastered over . with a sort of mud, low in stature,—for they dug no foundations in those days, and deemed it dangerous to build over two stories high, so soft and unstable was the soil,—and plain and uninviting from without, for the creole built for comfort, not for show. There was something picturesque about the steep roof, with its bright red tiles and tall chimney pots; and, after you once passed the big portal into the court-yard within, the wealth of flowers and evergreens, of palms, palmettoes and cactuses, the trailing creepers, the white-shelled walks fringed with violets, with perhaps a statue or fountain here and there, made the scene decidedly Oriental and deliriously idyllic and refreshing. Within the dwellings, everything was comfortable, almost luxurious, save perhaps the furniture, for there was very little furniture to boast of in the whole colony, this hundred years ago.

If in the suburbs, “the old place” was a plain but airy and roomy wooden cottage, elevated upon high brick pillars as if on stilts, with an almost endless stretch of broad veranda running around it, and a hall through the center half the size of the house—all bosomed in the dark green of the orange and magnolia. Wherever it was, however, there was always comfort, almost luxury, and a hospitality so bounteous that it utterly ruined all the aubergistes and rendered an inn or a hotel in the colony an impossibility.

Here, upon New Year’s Day, the entire family assembled at dinner— country cousins, grandchildren, uncles and aunts, and even the family servants. The dinner abounded in all the delights of the creole kitchen, and was grander and more refined than an ordinary Christmas dinner, for the people were naturally gourmands, and heavy feeders, to which was probably due their tendency to obesity in old age. There was always plenty, a rich gombo file’ or bisque, a caspargot or sac-au-lait, becaisincs and papabottes and all the luxuries of the Louisiana forests and streams. It was noticed by strangers that the natives were very carnivorous, and that while fish and game were abundant and cheap, whatever required labor to produce it, such as vegetables, was scarce and dear.

The creole could be studied to best advantage around this table. The ladies were stately, reserved, very cold and far less impulsive than the men. Especially was this so of the younger ones, fresh from the convent, and drilled into a supreme contempt for man. Free, however, were they of many of the feminine weaknesses of modern days, and, above all, economical.

Head-gear was almost unknown. If a lady went out in summer, it was bareheaded; if in winter, she usually wore a handkerchief or some such trifle as the Spanish women delight in. And at home, when the men were not about—so, at least, said those who penetrated there—she even went about barefooted, shoes being expensive luxuries. In contradiction to a very prevalent but erroneous belief that the southern races love bright colors, la creole dressed almost always in black. The families being very large from frequent intermarriages, and the women going into mourning for even distant cousins, they seldom appeared in anything but black—a color fortunately more suited to their brunette complexions.

Their children, pretty and precocious, but badly spoilt, ruled them and were the petty tyrants of the household—their mothers ruled absolutely by them, their fathers their slaves, and the negroes educated into the idea that they were the toys and special property of these youngsters.

. . . . . Such, at least, is the story that the visitors to this little creole city a century ago tell of the life and habits, the festivities and holidays, the amusements and engagements, of the natives. It is the only way we can learn anything about them, one hundred years ago. There was no newspaper or printing press in those early days, and even to this day the creole families are very reticent about themselves, and refuse to allow a glance at those old family papers and records which escaped the great fire that in 1788 destroyed almost the entire city.

Source: The Magazine of American history with notes and queries, A.S. Barnes., 1883

Image source:   Lilla Fox – The Constant Tourist

November 10, 2012 - Posted by | . | ,

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