Dec. 20, 1976
The First Christmas in St. Tammany by Polly Morris
The newly-created St. Tammany Parish was only three days old on the Christmas of 1810.
How did the people celebrate the first Christmas as citizens of the United States and the Parish of St. Tammany? There would have been very little special celebration for several reasons.
Many people would not yet have heard the news, for St. Tammany was then a vast wilderness that included the present Washington and Tangipahoa Parishes. Word traveled slowly by word of mouth up the bayous and along the trails, for there were no real roads at that time. Moreover a change in loyalty to country was quite commonplace to these stalwart citizens. Three months before they had been Spanish subjects. Less than a month before they had a flag of their own. Many were still living who colid recall the flags of Great Britain and France. All within half-a-hundred years. Now it was the young United States banner. What might tomorrow bring?
In a few homes there would be talking and toasting to family and to the Stars and Stripes, for some of the settlers had come from the New England States.
But the real reason for the lack of high festivity for the 1810 Christmas was quite simple. Christmas at that time was not a stack of gaily wrapped gifts under a tinseled tree ablaze with lights. The idea of exchanged presents had not yet been introduced, for the commercialized Christmas was 50 years into the future.
Christmas, 1810, was not filled with fun, fireworks, and festivities. It was merely a time for food and drink and friendship. . . and the story about the Babe of Bethlehem.
The people did not go to church because there was not a public place of worship. Their devotional services were held in homes. There was not even a town hall, for the only town was tiny Madisonville, a mere cluster cabins and houses on the Tchefuncte River. There was no place to go except to the homes of family, friends or neighbors.
Had there been prejudice there would have been a problem. A family who could trace their proud ancestors back to Merrie Auld Englande might live next-mile neighbor to a Creole whose ancestors came from sunny Spain, or were sent direct from the filthy streets of Paris. And a family from the Vaterland might live 2 miles south of a son of St. Patrick.
It was senseless in an untamed wilderness for nationality to make a difference, for they had a common bond between them- The hardships and isolation in a land shared with the original inhabitants.
Christmas Day came early and the family had a small breakfast to save room for a large dinner that was served after morning devotions. They may have kept the traditional dinner of roast goose, roast boar, or fowl stuffed with oysters. Most likely they loaded the table with a variety of what was available. A haunch of venison, squirrel stew, baked turkey, rabbit pie, and possibly Cochon de Iait.
The vegetables would be those from their own gardens that would not be quickly perishable, or could be pickled, dried, or salted. Most desserts would be sweetened with honey or molasses or fruits.
The afternoon was spent visiting or holding open house, and everyone was welcome. The greatest excitement came from eating and drinking the different foods and beverages and talking about different customs.
It was strange to see an evergreen tree that once grew in the forest sitting in a house, but it was a German custom. It was odd to hear Christmas called Weihnatchen, but everyone liked the little honey cakes called lebkutchen and the frosted gingerbread man that was given to each guest.
The homes of the Anglo-Saxons had a wassail bowl. Guests gathered around the bowl of hot spiced cider and watched the roasted oranges, studded with cloves, float on top of the steaming savory liquid. The host filled cups and handed them around, then offered a traditional toast of only two words, "Wes hal" which meant, "Be thou with good health."
In some of the English houses there was a bowl of syllabub. Made with cream and wine, it was much like eggnog. With this would be served Banbury tarts, plum pudding, and dough cake, a delicacy that was the forerunner of the fruit cake.
Even in the poorer homes the cabin door was opened wide and welcome. On a table made of logs cut in half were wooden bowls and spoons made of cow horn. There were hot golden sweet potatoes, blackberry wine, and chewey molasses cookies. The best thing was two pies. They were made by cutting a pumpkin in half and scooping out the pulp. After the seeds and fibre were removed, the pulp was mixed with milk, eggs, and molasses or honey and returned to the hull. It was then baked slowly on the hearth. For this simple fare, the host made no apology. He gave freely of what he had, and with justified pride. His wife made-do without butter, sugar, flour or oil. She had skillfully used handground meal, long-sweetening, and hog lard.
The Creole families always had the best-set tables, for they could make dishes fit for a king out of what other families would overlook. Except for the Indians, they had lived here longest and reaped the rewards of experience of many nations. Some of their dishes were delicately flavored with flower petals. Others were hot with peppers. Their cooking was like their legends. A sort of gumbo of delightful contributions from Spain, Mexico, and France. Nor did they ignore the arts from Germany, faraway Africa, or nearby natives.
When the dusk began to purple the pineclad countryside, the guests departed in pirogue or wagon. It had been a enjoyable day and everyone felt a little bit closer to their neighbor. Only the children chattered about the mysterious happenings that occurred between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning.
There was a man named St. Nicholas who came down the chimney and filled the stockings by the fireplace with sweetmeats . There were three strangers who rode through the dark night on their way to Bethlehem. They had stopped when they saw small shoes stuffed with hay and laying neatly on a doorstep. They fed their hungry horses and, in gratitude, left goodies in the shoes for the good children who had been so kind.
At other homes two men had appeared. One was a kindly man named Bonhomme Noel who had a sack of gifts for good children. But he was accompanied by a skinny man with a long gray beard and flashing eyes. This man was named Le Pere Fouettartf, and he carried a basket of reeds. He left a switch at the home of a naughty child.
Riding through the cold night on a donkey was also the Christchild. At several homes there was a candle left in the window to light Him on His way. The door was left unlocked, too, and milk and meat were laid out on the table for Him.
It was said that He often came in disguise, to test the goodness of men. Could it be that the ragged old wanderer who shared their fireside last night was Him?
Christ in Christmas
The first St. Tammany Christmas was truly unique. Across the lake (in New Orleans) there were petty prejudices and politics. On the North Shore the people were yet untainted. There was no envy to speak of, for few had luxuries. No one had to worry about buying a proper gift, because there was no price tag on Christ at that time. The people shared their joys and sorrows and the fruits of a bountiful land. They still had faith, and hope, and charity.
St. Tammany was a small corner of earth where there was peace and good will toward men. And such was the first St. Tammany Christmas.
Below is a scan of the original article. Click on the image to make it larger.
Polly Morris joined the writing team at the Mandeville Banner in February of 1974.