Jim Bradshaw: Of rude reveling and the great shaking
Given the fact that we will celebrate almost anything, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Louisiana was the first state to recognize Christmas as a legal holiday.
We’ve celebrated the day from the time the first settlers set foot on our shores, but nobody declared it an official holiday until we did it in 1831. In fact, celebration of Christmas was banned for many years in the Puritan colonies of the northeast. Pilgrim leaders thought it shared too much with some old pagan rites. In Massachusetts they went so far as to punish anyone who baked or ate a plum pudding during the Yule season.
Puritan preacher Cotton Mather’s description of the celebration made it sound like Mardi Gras. He wrote in 1712 that the “Feast is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty,” and, even worse, by “Mad Mirth, Long Eating, by Hard Drinking, by Lewd Gambling, by Rude Reveling” and more.
It’s true that we can trace some of our Christmas customs back to ancient Roman days, even to the Druids who lived long, long ago in Britain. But the French and Spanish and Germans who were among our first settlers embraced the ancient ways and adapted them to their celebration.
The French and the Spanish adopted the tradition of midnight Mass at Christmas, followed by a huge feast. Nobody knows for sure how that custom began. Canon law decrees that the first Mass on Christmas should be in nocte (while it is still night). Early Christians sang that nocturnal Mass at the first cock’s crow, around three in the morning. In Spain, an early Mass is still sometimes called Missa del gallo, Mass of the Rooster.
Réveillon is the French name for the feast that followed midnight Mass, and a feast it was. Extension Service agents recreated a typical réveillon during a convention several years ago. It included, among other delicacies, deviled eggs; baked eggs; a loaf of French bread laced with dates, apples, almonds, wine, and spices; daube glacé, dates soaked in wine, and three different wines to drink. Many of the feasts included gumbo, ducks or geese fresh from the wild, and dishes such as candied yams, rice and cornbread dressings, turkey, and ham, all of it topped off with coffee noir comme le diable, fort comme la mort, doux comme l’amour, et chaud comme l’enfer — black as the devil, strong as death, sweet as love, and hot as Hades.
According to legend, our Christmas trees originated in Germany, as did the ornaments we put on them. American trees were decorated with nuts and cookies and homemade ornaments until the 1890s, when dime-store mogul F. W. Woolworth began making buying trips to Germany. One year he came home with what today would be about half a million dollars’ worth of blown-glass tree ornaments. He sold every one of them in just three days. Christmas tree lights were invented about the same time by a guy who had the job of installing little bulbs on telephone switchboards. One year he made a string of them and put it on his tree, and that was that.
And, of course, we all have our private, family rituals. I don’t know if I invented the Ritual of the Great Shaking, but as a kid I was one of its most fervent practitioners.
Our family gathered at my grandparents’ house each Christmas Eve to distribute gifts, most of which were put under the tree well before the big evening. That is how the Ritual of the Great Shaking began. Each grandchild (I presume the others did it, too) sneaked into the “tree room,” found their presents, shook them to get a clue about what they might be, then carefully placed them in the front of the tree so that Grandad would hand them out first.
I was reminiscing about it a dozen or so years ago when one of my cousins pointed out that Grandad knew all about the ritual. “Boy, were you a dummy,” she said. “That’s why Grandad always started at the side of the tree and the girls and the grownups got their presents first.”
I refuse to believe that kindly old gentleman was, in fact, sneakier than me.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.