Cajun Christmas

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All month long I’m going to be hosting the posts of other people as part of my 2015 Giftmas Blog Tour. All the guest bloggers are welcome to write about anything they’d like so long as their post touched on a December holiday in some way, no matter how tangentially. The blog tour extends beyond my blog as well, and I will do my best to link to each external post from the here and share them on social media using the hashtag #GiftmasTour.

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Cajun Christmas

by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

Nottaway Plantation house

Let’s be clear, I am a Yankee. I was born north of the Mason-Dixon Line, I speak with a Hollywood-perfect mid-American accent, and my poor cat’s tongue cannot abide spicy food. I am a Yankee.

But I write this post from Cajun country, as I am spending my Thanksgiving holiday in the Mississippi Delta. And once Thanksgiving dinner was over, Christmas preparations began in earnest.

No, seriously, I mean once dinner was over. We had our turkey feast at midday, and at nightfall the first Christmas bonfire was lit.

Bonfires are a longstanding Delta tradition, brought by settlers from French and German Christmas communal fire customs. Children were dispatched to collect driftwood, and wood was stacked in efficient towers which would burn bright and hot. The children were told the fires guided Papa Noel to their houses, but these fires may have also helped to guide travelers along the river – always dangerous to navigate at night for many reasons – and to indicate a landing for family and friends.

bonfireLike many things, the towers grew as the years passed, until forty-foot and taller cones of wood were being lit in shared conflagrations and celebrations. Due to one collapsing structure, local towers are now limited to twenty feet, which is still a heck of a blazing pyramid. Some of the bonfire celebrants take weeks to build their neat structures of wood. Sometimes fireworks are tucked inside!

It’s a writer’s curse, but I am incapable of travel or even writing about travel without touching on local history and culture (this makes me either the most delightful or most heinous of traveling companions, depending upon your own preferences), so here’s just a bit of Cajun background. The very word Cajun is a corruption of Arcadian, French exiles from Nova Scotia who began arriving in the bayou country in the 1760s. They kept their French language and their French traditions well into the 19th century and remain a strong subculture in the Mississippi Delta region today.

By the way, what we call the Mississippi Delta region is actually an alluvial plain, not the delta itself, though that rolls a bit less smoothly off the tongue in local music. Levees and river control projects have (mostly) contained the mighty Mississippi and the regular floods which made this area so fertile are now decades apart, but the effects of millennia of floods remain, making this agricultural region famously productive and giving rise to the stereotypical Greek Revival plantation houses and endless fields of cotton or sugarcane, as well as the many smaller farms.

I write a lot in and about folklore and legend and history, and folk traditions fascinate me. But some are easy to understand – fire has long mesmerized us, warmed us, guided us, and protected us, even as it can endanger us. And let’s face it, gathering about fires in the dark is a fun departure from our sanitized, locked-thermostat-controlled lives. Fire circles have been a social bonding experience from the earliest caves to the latest Scout camps, and they’re not going to stop any time soon.

(By the way, the danger of spreading flame is pretty minimal in a region known primarily for its humidity and moist soil. Readers in California and other drought-stricken areas should heed the perennial advice, “Don’t try this at home.”)

So as Christmas approaches – and not just Christmas, as there is a long Jewish tradition in the Delta as well, another celebration of light – let your celebratory bonfires blaze, even if just metaphorically.bonfire at Nottaway Plantation house

Elemental-5252-webLaura VanArendonk Baugh was born at a very early age and never looked back. She overcame childhood deficiencies of having been born without teeth or developed motor skills, and by the time she matured into a recognizable adult she had become a behavior analyst, an internationally-recognized and award-winning animal trainer, a popular costumer/cosplayer, a chocolate addict, and of course a writer. Her holiday authorial achievement was bringing about a sweeping loss for The Little Drummer Boy game players by titling a Christmas book So To Honor Him, but she hopes it was worth it. Find her at http://www.LauraVanArendonkBaugh.com.

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