Christmas In Acadiana . . . With An Historic Slant
Chances are you are reading this somewhere in Acadiana. Maybe not, since lots of folks use the worldwide web to stay informed. So unless you are an indigenous Cajun, you may be wondering, of what I speak when referring to “Acadiana.” To answer that question, we will need to embark on an historical journey of sorts.
Acadians are the descendants of 18th Century Acadian exiles from what are now Canada’s Maritime Provinces. The original Acadians were religiously persecuted and expelled by the British and New Englanders during and after the French and Indian War. Not everyone who lives in Acadiana is genetically and/or culturally descendent from the original Acadians. The truncated version of Acadians, which is ‘Cadians, has been referenced in print stories through the centuries since the arrival of the Acadians to south Louisiana. Some speculate that ‘Cadians became anglicized to become “Cajuns.”
In 1950, the first recorded appearance of Acadiana appeared in the Crowley Daily Signal. Since that first use of the regional term, various cities have laid claim to being “The Heart of Acadiana.” In 1971, the Louisiana Legislature officially recognized twenty-two Louisiana parishes as “The Heart of Acadiana.” The official designation was done via a House Resolution, authored by Carl W. Bauer of St. Mary Parish. The resolution cites the 22 parishes as having “strong French Acadian cultural aspects.” The short version of Acadiana – drop “The Heart of” – is the common usage. Acadiana stretches as far west as Calcasieu Parish all the way to the Texas border, extending eastward to St. John the Baptist Parish, and northward into Avoyelles Parish.
What about Christmas in the late 18th Century here in Acadiana? I found an account by a journalist in The Magazine of American History from 1883; he received testimony earlier in the 1800s from early Acadians about their Christmas customs. Please indulge me as I “translate” what is difficult-to-understand language from the magazine, 130+ years ago. Christmas, as observed by the rugged and proud Acadians who traveled to Louisiana, was quite different from Christmas in other regions of the U.S.
The Acadian Noel was mainly a religious festival, devoid of English-inspired traditions such as gift giving, Santa Claus, and excessively “jolly celebrations.” Acadian women were very devout in their religious observation of Christ’s birth. While Acadian men fished, hunted, and maintained the family’s dwelling, women were left to educate the children of the import of Christmas and all its religious meaning. There were divisions and disputes – “wars of civility” if you will – between the Jesuits and Capuchins as to which Roman Catholic sect should have charge of the schools, and later between French and Spanish priests as to the “proper language” to teach catechism.
Acadian women, despite their religious fervor, loved to dance. Families and friends would gather to dance, sing, and play games until the bell of “Midnight Mass” beckoned the faithful to the church hall. Christmas day for Acadian children was paltry compared to other regions of the early United States. Candy or cakes were common Christmas gifts for children. New Year’s Day was the grand day of celebration for early Acadians. I speculate the reason for a more robust New Year celebration was because, like the early Acadians’ resettlement in Louisiana, it was a time to rejoice and “start anew.” Food was the hallmark of the grand Acadian celebration for the New Year. Large gatherings of family and friends would cook and enjoy gumbo, fish, game, etc. Early on, plant food was not abundant for Acadians. Until they honed the necessary agrarian skills on Louisiana soil, vegetables were scarce and dear.
Gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Day in early Acadiana. The celebration of the New Year also included song, dance, and kissing. Everybody kissed one another. Yes, men kissed each other, as well as the women and children. Remember that women were the stewards of religious festivals for the early Acadians. The 1883 magazine article which is the basis for this column stated the following: “[Acadian] women were free of many of the feminine weaknesses of modern days [emphasis added], and were above all, economical.”
Thank God for Cajun women, and Cajun Christmas celebrations and traditions.