Natchez’s holiday decorations and traditions continue

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 14, 2002

Like few other places in the country, Natchez provides a window on the past. The city is overflowing with history, from its antebellum mansions to its sprawling cemetery.

Aside from the physical remnants of long ago, early Natchezians left behind meticulously detailed accounts of their daily lives.

The people who lived on the bluff decades ago didn’t drive cars or watch television, and the clothes they wore were a bit different from ours, but the picture that emerges from their ancient diaries, log books and letters is a familiar one.

Email newsletter signup

They slept, worked, played, ate, got sick, got married and got drunk. They also celebrated Christmas, and their traditions and thoughts on the season bear a striking resemblance to ours.

The Dec. 16, 1857, edition of the Mississippi Free Trader refers to Christmas stockings

and has tips on turkey fattening.

The same newspaper, on Christmas Eve of 1840, shows that all the speculation about how successful retailers will be during the holiday shopping season is nothing new: &uot;Last year, Christmas fell on Sunday. We have not heard that their receipts were any less on that account.&uot;

An article published Dec. 29, 1858, in the Natchez Weekly Courier contains a description of Trinity Episcopal Church, which is decorated with &uot;festoons of greens &045; pine, cedar and magnolia intertwined and hung round the walls.

Writing in 1863 from a Melrose parlor &uot;dressed Š beautifully with evergreens,&uot; Alice Austen lays out a scene that still plays in modern homes: &uot;Christmas dawn Santa Claus blew his horn and rang his bells and the little ones found their well filled stockings.&uot;

Antonia Quitman Lovell, who grew up at Monmouth, tells a friend about Christmas in 1866, a difficult year in Natchez, but one that still yielded some holiday joy for her family. This was thanks in large part to her husband, Storrow, who apparently overspent to make the day &uot;merry&uot; for his children, something devoted dads do to this day.

&uot;We had for these times quite a merry one,&uot; Lovell writes. &uot;We had a Christmas tree for the children &045; Storrow’s merry heard was overflowing to everyone &045; in fact he quite broke his treasury department on the occasion. Had it not been for him our hearts would have been sad indeed Š The little folks went wild over the Christmas tree at which a venerable personage with cotton wig and slouched hat with ruddy mask presided bestowing gifts in the name of Santa Klaus &045; The tree was brilliant with wax candles ingeniously fixed on by Storrow in fact for awhile it seemed quite gay.&uot;

In fatter times, Elizabeth Dunbar Murray dined at Pecano Plantation across the river in Waterproof, La. The menu is as mouthwatering now as it was in 1859, and many of the dishes served that year have remained on Christmas tables.

&uot;There was a sumptuous repast,&uot; Dunbar writes, &uot;Turkey with dressing, rice and gravy, macaroni, sweet potato pone, wild plum jelly, potato salad with hot biscuits and cornbread. For dessert there was mince pie and ambrosia (made with oranges and pineapple) to choose between. This was followed by black coffee in small after-dinner cups, nuts and raisins. There was a large stand in the center of the table filled with fruits Š At the conclusion we all adjourned to the dining room and were soon busy making eggnog.&uot;

Not everyone enjoys Christmas, though. For some, it’s just another day.

William Johnson, a free black entrepreneur and perhaps the city’s most well-known diarist, never really got into the holiday spirit.

On Dec. 25, 1836, Johnson writes, &uot;This was quite a Dull Christmast &045; I went Down to Bon Store and I bought some figs and a Dollars worth of Cake.&uot;

Five years later: &uot;Business Dull, more so than I thot of. It is a sort of a dull Christmas.&uot;

And in 1847: &uot;This has been a rarther a Dull Christmas.&uot;

Like some of their counterparts today, certain Natchezians of yesteryear found all the yuletide merrymaking quite depressing.

Joseph B. Stratton, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, seems to have played along during the season, but his diary entries show his true feelings.

On Dec. 24, 1850, his birthday, Stratton writes, &uot;Have been busy making arrangements for Christmas. Sad and weary. Life o’erhung with clouds.&uot;

The next year is the same: &uot;Busy in town preparing for Christmas. Am low-spirited.&uot;

But then, as now, there was more mirth than sorrow.

On Jan. 2, 1859, the Mississippi Free Trader published the following account of Christmas celebrations: &uot;Egg-noggs were bountifully supplied, free gratis for nothing on Christmas morning at the Club Rooms and at the bars of the Mansion House Š and other places.&uot;