At this time of year I always get to thinking of how the American ideal of Christmas just seems to center around an ideal of a much colder climate than ours here in the Gulf South. Lines from popular Christmas songs are always the biggest reminder of this.
“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas, just like the ones I used to know…”
I have very little knowledge of white Christmases. I’ve seen two — maybe three? — of them in my lifetime. I know wet Christmases a whole lot better.
“Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow…”
Snow? Again, maybe it’ll rain, but that’s certainly nothing to sing about.
“Oh what fun it is to ride on a one-horse open sleigh…”
I’m going to have to take the author’s word on that. If you tried riding in a sleigh here the screeching would be deafening, and there’s nothing fun about sleigh-induced hearing loss.
It just often seems like when it comes to Christmas, the northeast is considered the paradigm. New Orleans just seems out of place, to the point where we try to look more “wintery” with lights mimicking icicles and flocked trees mimicking snow. The now-defunct Maison Blanche department store on Canal Street even used a snowman, “Mr. Bingle,” as their Christmas mascot.
This is a bit odd, because New Orleans should be the heart of Christmas in America. Why, we were celebrating Christmas in earnest while those folks up north were still wary of the whole enterprise as some Papist conspiracy.
The Protestant settlers of New England often came from a Puritan background that regarded Christmas as a decadent, raucous celebration where Catholics went to mass, then drank and ate too much (admittedly, there was probably a grain of truth to this). Heck, Boston actually banned Christmas from 1659 to 1681, fining anybody with the temerity to celebrate five shillings.
New Orleans, on the other hand, was not saddled with such humbuggery and immediately began celebrating Christmas upon its founding in 1718. Meanwhile, the British colonies continued to be wary of Christmas, even through the American Revolution. Christmas was viewed as a British custom, not an American one. The U.S. Congress even convened on Christmas day, where I presume every speech given was immediately preceded and followed by the words “BAH, HUMBUG!”
Not so incidentally, following the Louisiana Purchase in the early 19th Century, the rest of the United States finally started to pull its collective head out of its keister and accept Christmas. Still, progress was slow, and the South led the way in declaring Christmas an official holiday. First was Alabama in 1836, followed by Louisiana in 1837 and Arkansas in 1838. Christmas was only declared a national holiday more than thirty years later, in 1870.
Of course, despite helping bring Christmas to throngs of humbugs, New Orleans had developed markedly different Christmas traditions from the rest of the country. The focus was far more religious, with a “Reveillon” meal breaking a fast on Christmas Eve. Presents were not traded on Christmas Day, but rather on New Year’s Day. Today, of course, these traditions have been supplemented (and in many ways supplanted) by a broader American Christmas celebration that also evokes an idealized winter paradise.
Still, although the celebration of Christmas in New Orleans has changed, our commitment to the holiday has not. It is certainly a holiday we can claim as our own, and not just as one clumsily adopted from an incongruous vision of snow and sleigh bells.
Merry Christmas, everyone.
Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.