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A warm southern Christmas to you.

Winter comes late to the lower Mississippi; Christmas is frequently hot and muggy. The warm, moist Gulf winds blowing across the cooler Mississippi River create dense fogsas characteristic of Christmas in the area as snow is in New England. In fact, the children of New Orleans, Natchez, and Vicksburg assume that the river is Papa Noel's guide to their homes. Traditionally, tepee-style bonfires have been built along the levees to help Papa navigate.

Gramercy, Louisiana, 45 miles upriver from New Orleans, is bonfire headquarters, annually visited by a flotilla of excursion boats and thousands of automobiles choking the narrow road along the levee.

Bonfire construction has elaborated from the original tepee style to tugboats, log cabins, an"big foot" trucks, all made of pliable willow. Ronald St. Pierre has engineered the most elaborate creations, beginning with a cabin several years ago. He followed that with the Gramercy Queen Steamboat, then "Willow Plantation," and last year, an oil rig complete with crane, tugboat, and helicopter on a landing pad.

A bonfire builder must make sure the burning wood rolls down the river side of the levee and not the other way, toward Gramercy. The typical bonfire takes some four to five hours to burn. The green cane stuffed inside explodes like huge firecrackers"The nice part about it," St. Pierre says, "is that so many people come here to enjoy it. We've even had tour buses with foreign tourists stop."

Exploding sugar cane isn't enough noise for some lower Mississippians. Bottle rockets, firecrackers, and sparklers are sold in Independence Day quantities, a tradition that dates back to pre-Revolutionary days, when colonial garrisons saluted the Christ Child with volleys of musket fire.

Old World traditions are most pronounced in New Orleans, where Anglo and Creole customs blend in a month-long revel. The modern-day Christmas celebration stems from Victorian-era customs, when Christmas Eve Mass at St. Louis Cathedral was followed by a reveillon feast: wild game, sweet breads, daube glace, a jellied meat dish, rum cake, and strong coffee. The next morning the children discovered small toys in their stockings, but larger gifts were reserved for New Year's Day parties. The Creoles set out wax myrtle, orange, or Japanese plum trees in their private courtyard gardens and decorated them with tiny handmade cornucopias, sachets, cookies, toys, and flags-all given away later. Magnolia leaves, holly, and pine were draped across mantels and around portraits. Pyramids of fruit decorated tables.

December in modern New Orleans still recalls that era. Such historic French Quarter homes as the Hermann-Grima House, Gallier House Museum, Beauregard-Keyes House, and 1850s House are decorated in keeping with the Victorian era. Cornucopia favors rest on parlor tables as gentlemen callers would have left them. Wooden buckets sit beside Christmas trees in case the candles cause a fire. And baskets of food for the poor are filled in the kitchens. Such restaurants as Begue's, Brennan's, Cafe Anglais, Mr. B's, and Tujague's prepare riveillon menus. Many of the restaurants adapt recipes from the historic Madame Begue's cookbook, using light entrees served after Midnight Mass.

-Carolyn Thornton Nation
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Title Annotation:Christmas traditions in the South
Author:Nation, Carolyn Thornton
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1988
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