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A Cajun Christmas Eve

by Sim Lee  
12/21/2018 / Holidays


"la naissance du Christ" - The Birth of Christ

The old Cajun and Creole cultures of historic Louisiana are like comparing East and West and as Rudyard Kipling penned: "never the two shall meet".  The wealth of the Creole culture made for extravagant Christmas candle and glass ball displays in the finest of the homes in certain Quarters, whereas the celebration of Christmas by the Cajun culture was much simpler, and better suited to those of meager means.

On down the river delta, among the hundreds of chutes on the salt grass flats, there lived the poorest of the Cajuns, those who made their living from the swamp.  Frugal in all their ways, these were ones who lived quietly in small clans, only going away from their own kind when they went up to the levee markets to sell their hard-earned furs, skins, meat and swamp herbs.

It always seems that the poor among us have the greatest faith and the greater need of it, as religion to a Cajun was something to lean upon through life and to celebrate as their custom dictated.  Not having the knowledge of the deeper things of Scripture, and trusting more to the simplicity of the Gospels, they viewed Christmas as a reason to be glad that Christ was born and for the reason that God had sent him.  To the fathers and sons of these "swamp folks", Christmas Eve was a celebration that they could express their appreciation, in their own way, for all of this and to await the birth of Jesus by marking the passage of time, from the east to the west, with signal fires from dusk until dawn.

Living a life that meant hard work from sunrise to sunset and later, these men who made their livings from the tidal flats and estuaries would also make time to gather and pack suitable firewood for their Christmas Eve signal fires.  Although there would always be damp deadfall to pick through, the rarer hardwoods made the brightest fire.

When enough wood had been selected and gathered with care, it would be staged in hiding near to where the signal fire was to be lit. As there were always those who would light off a man's wood just to settle odds with another, the location of each wood stash was only known to that father and his son(s).

On the long-awaited Christmas Eve, the men of the family would "rick" up the wood and look to the east as darkness came upon them.  As it had always been, the fires of others to the east would be lit at dusk, and as the evening went on, more and more fires to the west would appear.

This was "the lighting of the way" for the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and was an old French celebration from the days of the French Acadians* down to the Cajuns of the bayous, performed by father and son, passed on down from father to son in celebrations of the Father and the Son.

Many of us equate the old school Cajun with "the fiddle and the bow" and with "dancing till the morning light", but I hope this story of these quiet people of the salt grass swamps shows how they spent at least one evening a year in quite a different way, all those years ago. :)

*One third of the Acadians expelled from the Canadian Maritime Providences by the British from 1755 to 1764 died of disease or drowning. Those who were allowed by the Spanish to settle in the Louisiana Delta became the Cajun Culture.

Sim Lee is a retired NE Iowan who loves all of God's creatures.

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