Introduction to Delta Pieces: Northeast Louisiana Folklife

Map: Cultural Micro-Regions of the Delta, Northeast Louisiana

Working in the Delta

Homemaking in the Delta

Making Music in the Delta

Telling Stories in the Delta

Delta Archival Materials

Reflections on the Delta

Christmas Customs

By Hiram Ford "Pete" Gregory, III

Editor's Note: In the early 1990s, Pete Gregory wrote these personal reflections about Northeast Louisiana's Delta and they are published with minimal editing. Also see his Musings on the Louisiana Delta from a Native Son.


In at least one Delta home in St. Joseph, it was the custom to gather the family together and the oldest member—in the instance remembered, it was the grandmother—would read a letter written by a member of an earlier generation. That particular Christmas, the letter was from the man who built the antebellum plantation, written to his brother in Natchez, Mississippi, during the Union occupation of the area during the Civil War. All was well, the planter said. Though Union horses had harmed the shrubbery and been tied to the gallery, no real harm had come. He wouldn't be able to send another letter soon, though, since people were shooting slaves on the roads and he couldn't expose his servant to danger. In closing, he wished his brother peace and health for Christmas—a hundred year-old wish that has held for generations.

There was another custom, too, one Eudora Welty made famous—the Christmas "gift." Blacks, especially the elderly blacks, expected a Christmas gift from young whites. It wouldn't be much—a small coin, a peppermint, a cookie—but something was expected. Blacks on the plantation were given gifts by the owners; crates of citrus were carried from house to house and the family would come outside and get their gift. Some of the people closest to the family would gather in the kitchen and have their own eggnog or wine. At our house [the Gregory family], all the knives were sharpened on Christmas morning. The black man who came to do that saw it as his responsibility to my father. We always had whiskey for him, too.

Families gathered at Christmas time. The Delta Christmas was not particularly cold, but it was most often grey and wet, very wet. Mud was the dominant landscape, not snow. The woods turned grey except for palmetto, mistletoe, and the bright red berries of the swamp haw or black haw trees. People cut pine trees or cedars, but many had Christmas trees that were brought from Illinois—balsam or fir—peculiar trees not grown in the Delta. The father would bring one over from Natchez or Vicksburg—from the city. They were always decorated in the corner of the living room or its equivalent. People tried hard to have trees, regardless of money or the lack of it. Strings of haw berries, Spanish moss, and paper chains were placed on the trees and, when available, colored lights were added. A layer of cotton was the Delta's "snow" under the tree. Tinsel and ornaments followed the rest and a star topped the trees.

Mistletoe was gathered by shooting it down and catching it before it hit the ground. Like the whiskey making the rounds, the old Celtic ways ran deep. It was hung over the doors in the house and traditional kissing was the custom, too.

Food was the big item during the holidays—ham, chicken, wild duck, and venison, but seldom turkey. Two kinds of bread were common—hot biscuits and cornbread with "coush" or dressing made of cornbread, onions, chicken stock, giblets, and chopped up boiled eggs. There were candied sweet potatoes, baked sweet potatoes topped with canned pineapple, and marshmallows. Vegetables included turnips and peas, and sometimes boiled new potatoes sprinkled with black pepper, chopped onions, and butter. Last there were desserts—pies of apple and mincemeat, coconut cake, and a concoction fit for kings called "Parson's Tipsy" [a trifle typically called Tipsy Parson] made of layers of chopped bananas, oranges, and coconut in a sweet sauce placed between layers of white cake laced with bourbon and covered with whipped cream.

Coconuts always appeared around Christmas, and people broke them open, grated the meat and poured up the milk for cooking. Cakes received most of the coconut, but some went into the Tipsy or fruit salads. Nuts, especially Brazil nuts and almonds, seemed to appear out of the blue around Christmas. Exotic foods, they were used for stocking stuffers.

Children waited for Santa Claus to come down the chimney on Christmas Eve and left him cookies and milk. Sometimes there were many toys, other times only a few. Still there was always something. Older boys waited hopefully for a knife, a gun (usually a .22 caliber rifle), and cartons of shells. A pair of wool socks, a hunting cap, and a pair of new boots made for a special Christmas.

Little girls received dolls and clothes to dress them in. Sometimes china-headed dolls dating to the early 19th century were re-dressed or given cradles made of pasteboard boxes. Hair bows and toys of other kinds came, too. As they grew older, the girls received make-up and toiletries.

Whiskey was a common gift for older men, and no Delta family went without it on Christmas. In white families, men made eggnogs for family and friends on Christmas morning. Black men gathered on porches or in the corners of their house yards to drink together. Somehow people got in the "spirit" of the season.

Christmas Eve always saw a community dance, usually at a nightclub. They were formal in the 1940s, and couples went dressed in their best. A band, usually African American, played and couples danced until midnight. Catholics went to Midnight Mass and then home to lay out presents. This dance would be repeated on New Year's Eve as well.

Fireworks were always important in the Delta. People bought them from trucks or booths scattered around the towns. Roman candles, sparklers, firecrackers and other fireworks went off all over the Delta from November until New Years. Children nearly always received a few fireworks for Christmas, but they always saved a few to welcome in the New Year.

Hiram F. "Pete" Gregory is an anthropologist at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Dayna Lee, his former student, served as regional folklorist for northwest Louisiana and now is an independent anthropologist based in New Orleans. This article was written for the Delta Folklife Project as part of Northeast Louisiana's Delta.