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Story Archives: Christmas in Natchez country: fruit, pork, whiskey, gunfire
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|Christmas in Natchez country: fruit, pork, whiskey, gunfire|
Christmas on the Natchez frontier was often a simple affair, which featured an observance of the birth of Christ, a hearty meal, whiskey and the firing of guns at night.
In the early days of white settlement, wild game was the main course. The Christmas feast might include buffalo, venison, bear, wild turkey, squirrel or rabbit stew. A popular dish on some Christmas tables was possum.
By the time the frontiersman had established an operating farm, a milk cow would provide not only milk and cream, but could be used to produce butter and homemade cheese.
Whether from the wild or domestic, pork has long been a favorite of Southerners and often was a signature dish at Christmas. That was due to several reasons, mostly because the best time to slaughter a hog was after the first spell of freezing weather.
On the frontier, during the antebellum period and on into the 20th century, hog killing time was a sign that Christmas was near. Many from the World War II generation recall a roasted hog and fruit -- either apples or oranges, or both -- as signature holiday food.
In his book, "Eating, Drinking and Visiting in the South," Joe Gray Taylor writes: "Southerners slaughtered their hogs as early in the morning as soon as there was good light, and then dipped the carcasses in inclined barrels filled with scalding water from a boiling pot or heated by dropping hot stones into them. The hot water loosened the pig's bristles which then could be scraped from skin with a knife or even a spoon. When well scraped, the porkers were suspended by the hind legs from a frame erected for the purpose or from a handy tree limb."
Once cleaned, Taylor writes that the "liver was prized and often eaten after the hogs were killed. The brains might grace the breakfast table the next morning, mixed with eggs if the poultry had been productive."
Chitterlings were a favorite, cooked in a batter, and the tenderloin, backbone, tongue, tail, ears, knuckles, feet and jowls were also enjoyed. Some of the head was made into hog's head cheese, some scraps turned into sausage and so on. Taylor says "hams, shoulders, sides of bacon, and pieces of fatback formed between the rib cage and the skin above the true bacon sides were cured for future use."
Alcohol was also enjoyed in excess at some homes, while a favorite Christmas night pastime was to fire guns.
Glimpses of Christmas seasons past in Louisiana and Mississippi during the 19th century reflect times of simplicity, although occasionally they included ceremony.
UNDER-THE-HILL, 1787: Eleven-year-old George Willey arrived in Natchez with his family on a flatboat on Christmas Day, 1787: "At that time there were but two or three houses on the hill, the whole town being under the hill, which was then quite an extensive tract."
WASHINGTON, MISS. 1803: Thomas Rodney of Delaware was appointed a Mississippi Territory federal judge by President Thomas Jefferson. In July 1803, Rodney began a 1,500-mile journey to Natchez. He came part of the way by horse and coach, then with a few other men boarded a flatboat and traveled down the Ohio River before entering the Mississippi.
On Dec. 1, his flatboat docked at the Natchez landing where Rodney noticed a bustling river trade. Accustomed to cold Delaware winters, Rodney was happy to find the weather on Dec. 17 in Natchez country "fine and pleasant." He enjoyed the cool nights, the "white frost" instead of the Delaware snow, and loved the "clear, mild days."
At Washington, the territorial capital six miles east of Natchez, Tennessee troops were soon expected en route to New Orleans at a time when the Mississippi had "swelled 10 feet."
Rodney informed his son by letter that on Dec. 22 the first two companies of "Tennessee Horse arrived at Fort Dearborn," the military base located at Washington. Later, Rodney said he and other officials -- "34 gentlemen" in all -- enjoyed an "elegant dinner" at 3 p.m. All, said Rodney, were "social and joyous." They returned for wine and spirits at dark.
On Dec. 23, a second company of Tennessee troops arrived with the remaining 500 expected the next day. Then came Christmas and the new year of 1804. It was a holiday season Rodney never forgot and he immediately found the people of the Mississippi Territory to be "social and hospitable."
HOT SPRINGS 1804: William Dunbar of Natchez and Dr. George Hunter of Philadelphia spent the holiday at the hot springs in Arkansas. The two men were leading an exploration of the Ouachita River Valley, one of four authorized by President Thomas Jefferson following the Louisiana Purchase.
Both Dunbar and Hunter kept journals and occasionally wrote about the dozen soldiers and sergeant who accompanied the explorers. "Spirituous liquors must be out of the question" for future explorations, wrote Dunbar in his journal of the journey.
For the four-month Ouachita River Expedition, Hunter had purchased 38 gallons of whiskey, 17 gallons of brandy and one case of gin. Sometimes the soldiers drank too much, a problem for the expedition leaders. But on Christmas Day at the hot springs, Dunbar didn't seem to mind the men's howling celebration as the whiskey bowl flowed for hours.
"This being Xmass we were obliged to indulge the men with a holy day for which purpose they had hoarded up their ration whiskey, to be expended on this day; a great deal of frolick was the consequence; but perfectly innocent," he reported.
Wrote Hunter: "Being Christmas our Soldiers had previously divided themselves into two messes or parties, one of which remained at the Springs & the other half went to the river Ouachita to keep their holiday at the camp by the boat with the sergeant. They had made a reserve of their liquor for the occasion, with which...a Saddle of venison they made themselves very merry, dancing, Hooping in the Indian Manner & singing alternately, not forgetting to serenade us from time to time with a volly from their riffles, wishing us a happy Christmass with all the compliments of the season...The night came at length with the heavy rain which put a period to their mirth, & sleep closed their joys for the day."
STATE STREET, NATCHEZ, 1840s: William Johnson, a free black landowner and barber, wrote in his journal about one Natchez Christmas in the 1840s of "considerable mirth." On another Christmas he found the town "full of overseers at present Looking out for new Homes."
CONCORDIA PARISH 1850s: Mary Reynolds, a slave on the Kilpatrick Plantation at Lismore on Black River until freed in 1863 recalled in the 1930s that slaves were given "fresh meat on Christmas and a plug of tobacco all around. The highest cotton picker (got) a suit of clothes and all the women that had twins (got) an outfit of clothes for the twins and a warm blanket."
ADAMS COUNTY, 1850s: Charlie Davenport, a slave on the Surget Plantation at Natchez, recalled: "On Christmas, the master gave us chicken and barrels of apples and oranges. Of course, every master wasn't as free handed as ours was...I heard a heap of colored people never got nothing good to eat."
ROSALIE MANSION, NATCHEZ, 1863: Gen. Walter Quintin Gresham, commander of Union forces at occupied Natchez in 1863, wrote to his wife from headquarters at Rosalie Mansion on the bluff:
"I can't say that I had a merry Christmas, for I felt that I ought to be at home. Since I entered the service I have never felt so blue at being separated from you and the children as I did yesterday. I hope it was not the case with you..."
Gresham reported having his Christmas meal at Sunnyside, the home of Samuel Davis, whose brother, Alfred Vidal Davis, owned Dunleith: "I went out to Mr. Sam Davis' yesterday at 4 p.m. to dine. The party consisted of the two Miss Pages, Doctor Carter, Mr. Sargent, Mr. Elijah Smith, Captain Babbitt and myself. It was the finest dinner I ever sat down to..." (Unfortunately, Gresham didn't describe what he ate.)
MARKSVILLE CAMP, 1863: Rebels in Gen. John G. Walker's Texas division spent their holiday encamped near Marksville in Avoyelles Parish. Joseph Palmer Blessington, author of "The Campaigns of Walker's Texas Division," watched "...five thousand camp-fires glow and sparkle...through the darkness of night, like the gas-lights of a city...around which the men are grouped, singing, joking, and laughing, with a lighthearted ease...Most of them are full of practical jokes, light and sparkling as champagne...Near one of the huge fires a kind of arbor was nicely constructed of the branches of trees, which were so interwoven as to form a kind of wall. Inside this were seated a couple of fiddlers, making elegant music on their fiddles. Around the fire, groups were dancing jigs, reels, and doubles....
"It is no wonder that a great portion of the troops were gathered around...for it was Christmas night, and home thoughts and home longings were crowding on them; and old scenes and fancies would arise, with sad and loving memories, until the heart grew weary, and even the truest and tenderest longed for home associations that blessed Christmas night. On the right of the camp-ground was another arbor, lately erected for prayer-meetings at night. It was beautifully lighted up with burning pine-knots. Gathered under the arbor were a number of soldiers, quietly and attentively listening to the words which fell from the lips of the preacher standing in their midst...Amongst the groups of eager listeners were men just entering the threshold of life, yet whose vocations placed their feet upon the verge of the grave.
"The rows of tents, the black groupings of adjacent shelters, all made an impressive scene. Occasionally, mingling with the preacher's words, came laughter from some group assembled round a camp-fire near by, or a shout of some unthinking, freehearted stroller about camp. Words rich with eloquent meaning rolled from that aged preacher's lips...The exhortation finished, a closing hymn was sung, rolling its waves of fine melody out upon the night's still air, over the adjacent prairies. The benediction pronounced, the audience dispersed to discuss—some in serious, others in jocular vein—the subject-matter of the discourse.
"Such is one of the occasional, more impressive scenes from camp-life on a Christmas night."
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