Published: Nov/Dec 2003

Landrum’s Homestead and Village in Laurel, Miss., features old-fashioned decorations and festive events (above and below) during the holidays. Among the activities are pony rides, weaving demonstrations, live music and more. /Carolyn Thornton photos

Heralding the holidays
From a cave to log cabins to a plantation, the South welcomes the holiday season with traditional decorations, celebrations and song

By Carolyn Thornton

Throughout the South, decorating for Christmas reflects traditions practiced for generations. Immigrants who adapted local ingredients with European customs introduced many ideas.

“What makes Louisiana different,” said David Floyd, executive director of the Louisiana State University Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge, “is the mix of peoples (French, German, Spanish, African-American)...who eventually blend together.”

The museum interprets the rural heritage of pre-industrial Louisiana. More than 20 buildings represent a 19th-century working plantation with its commissary, blacksmith shop, overseer’s home, sugar house, slave cabins, school and sick house. Others show the architectural styles of a country church, dogtrot pioneer cabin and Acadian cottage.

Two cultures

“There were dual traditions at Christmas,” said Floyd. “The French culture is most ingrained with the people following French laws and using the French language.”

French Louisianans regarded Christmas as a day of devotion and prayer. Beginning with midnight Mass, they fasted and spent the day in meditation.

“It was a deeply religious day,” said Floyd. Twelfth Night, or Three Kings’ Day, in January ended the Christmas season and marked the start of Mardi Gras revelry.

The Anglo-Saxon tradition, typical of most Southern states, celebrated Christmas day with feasting and giving trinket gifts. Inside the museum's Acadian cottage, a pair of wooden shoes rests beside the hearth. The shoes were filled with fresh oranges and homemade dolls. Readily available greenery–native smilax vine, Christmas bush, nandina, pine, cedar, and magnolia boughs–were draped over mantels, portraits, doorways and fences.

Santa Claus and the building of levee bonfires to light the way for Papa Noel were introduced in the 1890s among the German river settlements. German families were the first to decorate trees inside their homes using native crape myrtles, cedar or orange trees taken from their gardens.

Today, Louisiana Christmas traditions have hints of French, Spanish, African-American, Italian, Acadian, German and Caribbean influence for its melting pot of celebrations.

A homespun Christmas

Twenty years ago, Tom and Anne Landrum of Laurel, Miss., decided to build a log cabin to teach their grandchildren living history. The family worked together cutting trees, hauling the lumber, milling the timber at a small sawmill, and building a cabin.
“All I planned to do was sit on the porch and enjoy it,” Landrum said. But people started coming to see the cabin. Before long, it became the centerpiece for Landrum’s Country Homestead and Village with 50 buildings and displays covering 10 acres.

“We’ll probably never complete it. We're always adding to it,” said Anne Landrum.
Although the homestead is open year-round, Christmas at the Village re-creates a nostalgic Christmas gathering each season with everyday and special occasion activities. “People like being able to step back in time and see how people lived,” said Tom.

Inside some of the buildings, simple Christmas trees are decorated in the old-fashioned manner using ribbons, strings of popcorn and homemade ornaments. Garlands and red ribbons decorate split rails and structures throughout the village. Victorian-styled globe streetlights and contemporary Christmas lights set the scene for two evening candlelight tours. Festival activities include music, a Confederate camp re-enactment, working craftspeople, and food vendors.

Most of the buildings represent the early 1900s. In keeping with that era, homespun activities, including pony rides, appeal to today's youngsters. Women enjoy spinning and weaving demonstrations at the 1900s Garrett House, while men find fascination in a simple display of barbed wire or the Ajax steam engine.

The sandbox inside the one-room schoolhouse intrigues children and adults.

“That’s how Miss Bertha Lancaster taught us our ABCs in the 1930s,” Landrum said. “It was hands-on education.”

Next door is the homestead’s oldest building, the Geddie Log Cabin, built by Anne’s great-grandfather in 1863. Her grandmother worked for two spoons of butter a day and picked wild turnips to feed her 10 children.

Home-baked bread has become a Christmas tradition at the homestead. Katie Callen was setting slices of wheat bread on a windowsill. She spreads honey butter on sample slices, which disappear as fast as she can set them out.

“I baked 80 loaves one year and we had a hurricane. I had to bring a lot home. This time I baked 51 loaves,” she said.

Cornbread baked over an open campfire is offered to visitors at the Confederate encampment. The soldiers and their wives re-enact the “winter quarters” time period around Christmas.

“That is when the wives would be visiting,” explained Patricia Salassi. “And they'd bring presents for their men.” Presents were all necessary items, such as socks or molasses. A popular gift consisted of needles, thread and pins in a container.

Of all the village buildings, Landrum is most proud of the chapel, which is used for weddings and special occasions.

“To me, Christmas is everyday,” he said.

Caroling in the caverns

Some theologians believe that the Christ child was born in a cave located in the hills around Bethlehem. During the era of Christ’s birth, families built lean-to shelters at the entrance for dwellings and housed their animals inside the caves. Because the outer room was already filled when they arrived, Joseph took Mary into the stable area for shelter and privacy.

Fittingly, nature forms the backdrop for “Caroling in the Caverns” at Blanchard Springs Cavern near Mountain View, Ark. Processing in from behind the audience to a natural stage area in the Cathedral Room of the caverns, a cappella singers enter performing “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

“The voices are carrying out behind you and echoing through the cave,” said Bill Tanneberger of the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the event. The first time he heard those voices he said, “It made my hair stand on edge.”

The audience is seated on bleachers on the Dripstone Trail, which opens into the Cathedral Room. This, the largest of the cave rooms, has highly decorated crystaline formations–sparkling flowstone, towering columns and delicate soda straws–illuminated for the occasion.

“The cave is already pretty spectacular,” said Tony Guinn, visitor information specialist at the cavern. “There’s not much we can do to add to that.”

The response was so favorable after the first caroling performance in 2001 that six caroling dates were scheduled last December on the weekends prior to Christmas. With only 100 seats available for each performance, reservations quickly filled up and a seventh performance was hastily added.

Performances are scheduled for 4:15 p.m., the last tour of each day. While waiting to enter the cave, visitors can enjoy the Christmas decorations, exhibits and movie on cave life and its history.

For “Caroling in the Caverns,” local musicians perform with guitar, banjo, dulcimer, or autoharp. No amplification or microphones are necessary. Pam Kirby, who plays guitar, dulcimer and spoons, sings with her mother, Jean Simmons, who plays the dulcimer.

“The sound is wonderful,” said Kirby. “Even with voices (alone), the sound is so much larger and fuller.” Instruments have to be tuned to adjust to the constant year-round temperature of 58 degrees inside the cavern.

“It’s a very touching, different atmosphere than getting up on stage (above ground),” she said.

After folk carols and family favorites have been sung, the hour-long program ends with everyone singing “Silent Night.” As one person described it, “We were underground, but never felt closer to heaven.”

Carolyn Thornton is a contributor from Purvis, Miss.

If you go

The Rural Life Museum hosts a Christmas celebration with working artisans Dec. 6. For information, call (225) 765-2437. Landrum’s Homestead celebrates Christmas in the Country Nov. 29. Call (601) 649-2546. Caroling in the Caverns will be Dec. 5, 6, 12, 13, 19, 20. Adults admission is $10, children $5. For reservations call Mountain View Chamber of Commerce at 1-888-679-2859 or visit the Web site and click on Caroling in the Caverns.

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