Editor’s note: This story originally printed in 2011.
In the exclamation pointed immortal words of Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof,” tradition is an essential chunk of our lives.
Without tradition we would have to reinvent each holiday when it arrives on that calendar date. Imagine Hanukkah without a menorah, Thanksgiving without a turkey or Christmas without Santa Claus.
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Although “the new” is important for creating memories to sustain us, newly invented traditions alone don’t generate that warm, fuzzy feeling most will experience today as we combine Christmases past and present.
Tradition can be hanging a holly wreath on a door, putting baby Jesus in the creche in the front yard, reacquainting ourselves with the story of the misfit Rudolph, leaving a plate of cookies for Santa, singing familiar holiday songs.
The proverbial Christmas stocking of South Mississippi is overloaded with such traditions. Of course, some are shared by the nation and some are stronger in this region. Take, for example, fireworks. Clerks in the seasonal stands that opened a few weeks ago aren’t just selling their wares for the New Year.
“The din and uproar caused by the effusive boys, in exploding giant crackers, made ears ring,” this newspaper reported in the 1890s. “Notwithstanding the immense amount of powder burnt on Christmas, the Herald congratulates the people for immunity from accidents.”
Our fireworks harken to French Colonial times, when explorers and settlers flying under the flag of King Louis XIV and following European tradition faithfully shot off guns and fireworks to celebrate the birth of Christ.
The Christmas stocking itself is a widespread tradition credited to the first St. Nicholas, a real bishop living in Turkey who heard of a poor man forced to sell his three daughters into servitude, because he lacked dowry money. Each time a girl came of age, so goes the story, Nicholas threw gold coins down the man’s chimney, where they landed in real stockings hanging by the fire to dry.
To represent that gold, many from the Gulf South still find a Louisiana navel orange or a Mississippi or Alabama satsuma in the toe of their stocking. In the 1800s and early 1900s, locally grown citrus was a treasured treat in holiday stockings. Although citrus is more readily available, some families still find local produce in their stockings, including pralines made with Mississippi pecans.
Holly is another custom harvested from local woods and used prolifically on mantels, porch rails and wreathes. One belief, again carried here by European settlers, is the importance of who first brings the holly into the house. If it is the man he will reign in the house. If the woman brings in the holly, her authority holds sway.
“The most popular superstition is that every remnant of Christmas decoration must be removed before Candlemas Day,” this newspaper reported in 1916. (Candlemas Day is Feb. 2) “Should a sprig of holly or other evergreen be left in any house, one of its occupants will die within a year.”
Our region was rife with similar Christmas superstitions, some that have weakly survived the passage of time and others now faded in memory. They thrived when Southerners were less skeptical of folk beliefs.
Today, such superstitions make interesting holiday food for thought and can be fun to scoff at ... or obey. Here are a few old-time Southern “beliefs” to ponder:
▪ If a single woman wants to know who her future husband will be, she should walk backward toward a pear tree on Christmas morning, circle it three times, then look up through the branches to see an image of her future mate.
▪ Wear something fresh and new on Christmas Day and your luck will improve.
▪ Don’t wear new shoes, though. At best, they will hurt your feet. At worst, they will walk you into trouble.
▪ Be careful not to give anybody a match or a warm coal that is taken out of your house. You will be giving out your hope of future well-being.
▪ A cricket chirping on Christmas Day brings good luck.
▪ During the recitation of Christ’s genealogy at Christmas Eve mass, buried treasure reveals itself.
▪ If a dirty cloth is left on the table over Christmas night, it will make the angels weep.
▪ A loaf of bread left on the table after Christmas Eve dinner will ensure no lack of bread for the next year.
▪ If the sun shines through the fruit or nut tees at noon on Christmas Day, the crop will be full.
▪ Don’t wash and iron a present before you give it, or you will be washing out the good luck and pressing in the bad.
▪ Leaving your Christmas tree up past Old Christmas, which is Epiphany or Jan. 6, is bad luck.
▪ If you refuse to eat mince pie at Christmas dinner, you will have bad luck for a year.
Kat Bergeron, a veteran feature writer specializing in Gulf Coast history and sense of place, is retired from the Sun Herald. She writes Coast Chronicles as a freelance correspondent. Reach her at BergeronKat@gmail.com; or c/o Sun Herald Newsroom, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi 39535-4567.