Shall we not break for a time from our record of special tales and let fall on our pages a bit of winter sunshine from the South, the story of a Christmas festival in the land of the rose and magnolia? It is a story which has been repeated so many successive seasons in the life of the South that it has grown to be a part of its being, the joyous festal period in the workday world of the year. The writer once spent Christmas as a guest in the manor house of old Major Delmar, "away down South," and feels like halting to tell the tale of genial merrymaking and free-hearted enjoyment on that gladsome occasion.
On the plantation, Christmas is the beginning and end of the calendar. Time is measured by the days "before Christmas" or the days "since Christmas." There are other seasons of holiday and enjoyment, alike for black and white, but "The Holidays" has one meaning only: it is the merry Christmas time, when the work of the year past is ended and that of the year to come not begun, and when pleasure and jollity rule supreme.
A hearty, whole-souled, genial host and kindly, considerate master was the old major, in the days of his reign, "before the war," and fortunate was he who received an invitation to spend the mid-winter festival season under his hospitable roof. It was always crowded with well-chosen guests. The members of the family came in from near and far; friends were invited in wholesome numbers; an atmosphere of good-will spread all around, from master and mistress downward through the young fry and to the dusky-faced house-servants and plantation hands; everybody, great and small, old and young, black and white, was glad at heart when the merry Christmas time came round.
As the, Yule-tide season approached the work of the plantation was rounded up and everything got ready for the festival. The corn was all in the cribs; the hog-killing was at an end, the meat salted or cured, the lard tried out, the sausage-meat made. The mince-meat was ready for the Christmas pies, the turkeys were fattened, especially the majestic "old gobbler," whose generous weight was to grace great dish on the manor-house table. The presents were all ready,—new shoes, winter clothes, and other useful gifts for the slaves; less useful but more artistic and ornamental remembrances for the household and guests. All this took no small thought and labor, but it was a labor of love, for was it not all meant to make the coming holiday a merry, happy time?
I well remember the jolly stir of it all, for my visit spread over the days of busy preparation. In the woods the axe was busy at work, cutting through the tough hickory trunks. Other wood might serve for other seasons, but nothing but good old hickory would do to kindle the Christmas fires. All day long the laden wagons creaked and rumbled along the roads, bringing in the solid logs, and in the wood-yards the shining axes rang, making the white chips fly, as the great logs were chopped down to the requisite length.
From the distant station came the groaning oxcart, laden with boxes from the far-off city, boxes full of mysterious wares, the black driver seeking to look as if curiosity did not rend his soul while he stolidly drove with his precious goods to the store-room.. Here they were unloaded with mirthful haste, jokes passing among the laughing workers as to what "massa" or "mistis" was going to give them out of those heavy crates. The opening of these boxes added fuel to the growing excitement, as the well-wrapped-up parcels were taken out, in some cases openly, in others with a mysterious secrecy that doubled the curiosity and added to the season's charm.
Cotton field on Southern Plantation.
There was another feature of the work of preparation in which all were glad to take part, the gathering of the evergreens—red-berried holly, mistletoe with its glistening pearls, ground-pine, moss, and other wood treasures—for the d oration of parlor, hall, and dining-room, and, above all, of the old village church, a gleeful labor in which the whole neighborhood took part, and helpers came from miles away. Young men and blooming maidens alike joined in, some as artists in decoration, others as busy workers, and all as merry aids.
Days rolled on while all this was being done,—the wood chopped and heaped away in the wood-sheds and under the back portico; the church and house made as green as springtide with their abundant decorations, tastefully arranged in wreaths and folds and circles, with the great green "Merrie Christmas" welcoming all corners from over the high parlor mantel. All was finished in ample time before the day of Christmas Eve arrived, though there were dozens of final touches still to be made, last happy thoughts that had to be worked out in green, red, or white.
On that same day came the finish which all had wished but scarcely dared hoped for, a fleecy fall of snow that drifted in feathery particles down through the still atmosphere, and covered the ground with an inch-deep carpet of white. I well remember old Delmar, with his wrinkled, kindly face and abundant white hair, and his "By Jove, isn't that just the thing!" as he stood on the porch and looked with boyish glee at the fast-falling flakes. And I remember as well his sweet-faced wife, small, delicate, yet still pretty in her old age, and placidly sharing his enjoyment of the spectacle, rare enough in that climate, in spite of the tradition that a freeze and a snow-fall always came with the Christmas season.
Christmas Eve! That was a time indeed! Parlor and hall, porch and wood-shed, all were well enough in their way, but out in the kitchen busy things were going on without which the whole festival would have been sadly incomplete. The stoves were heaped with hickory and glowing with ardent heat, their ovens crammed full of toothsome preparations, while about the tables and shelves clustered the mistress of the place and her regiment of special assistants, many of them famous for their skill in some branch of culinary art, their glistening faces and shining teeth testifying to their pride in their one special talent.
Pies and puddings, cakes and tarts, everything that could be got ready in advance, were being drawn from the ovens and heaped on awaiting shelves, while a dozen hands busied themselves in getting ready the turkey and game and the other essentials of the coming feast that had to wait till the next day for their turn at the heated ovens.
As the day moved on the excitement grew. Visitors were expected: the boys from college with their invited chums; sons and grandsons, aunts and cousins, and invited guests, from near and far. And not only these, but "hired out" servants from neighboring towns, whose terms were fixed from New Year to Christmas, so that they could spend the holiday week at home, made their appearance and were greeted with as much hilarious welcome in the cabins as were the white guests in the mansion. In the manor house itself they were welcomed like home-coming members of the family, as, already wearing their presents of new winter clothes, they came to pay their "respecs to massa and mistis."
As the day went on the carriages were sent to the railroad station for the expected visitors, old and young, and a growing impatience testified to the warmth of welcome with which their arrival would be greeted. They are late—to be late seems a fixed feature of the situation, especially when the roads are heavy with unwonted snow. Night has fallen, the stars are Jut in the skies, before the listening ears on the porch first catch the distant creak of wheels and axles. The glow of the wood-fires on the hearths and of candles on table and mantel is shining out far over the snow when at length the carriages come in sight, laden outside and in with trunks and passengers, whose cheery voices and gay calls have already heralded their approach.
What a time there is when they arrive, the boys and girls tumbling and leaping out and flying up the steps, to be met with warm embraces or genial welcomes; the elders coming more sedately, to be received with earnest handclasps and cordial greetings. Never was there a happier man than the old major when he saw his house filled with guests, and bade the strangers welcome with a dignified, but earnest, courtesy. But when the younger corners stormed him, with their glad shouts of "uncle" or "grandpa" or other titles of relationship, and their jovial echo of "Merry Christmas," the warm-hearted old fellow seemed fairly transformed into a boy again. Guest as I was, I felt quite taken off my feet by the flood of greetings, and was swept into the general overflow of high spirits and joyful welcomes.
The frosty poll of the major and the silvery hair of his good wife were significant of venerable age, but there were younger people in the family, and with them a fair sprinkling of children. Of these the diminutive stockings were duly hung in a row over the big fireplace, waiting for the expected coming of Santa Claus, while their late wearers were soon huddled in bed, though with little hope of sleep in the excitement and sense of enchantment that surrounded them. Their disappearance made little void in the crowd that filled the parlor, a gay and merry throng, full of the spirit of fun and hearty enjoyment, and thoroughly genuine in their mirth, not a grain of airiness or ostentation marring their pleasure, though in its way it was as refined as in more showy circles.
Morning dawned,—Christmas morning. Little chance was there for sleepy-heads to indulge themselves that sunny Yule-tide morn. The stir began long before the late sun had risen, that of the children first of all; stealing about like tiny, white-clad Spectres, with bulging stockings typed tightly in their arms; craftily opening bedroom doors and shouting "Christmas gift!" at drowsy slumberers, then scurrying away and seeking the hearth-side, whose embers yielded light enough for a first glance at their treasures.
Soon the opening and closing of doors was heard, and one by one the older inmates of the mansion appeared, with warm "Merry Christmas" greetings, and all so merry-hearted that the breakfast-table was a constant round of quips and jokes, and of stories of pranks played in the night by representatives of Santa Claus. Where all are bent on having a good time, it is wonderful how little will serve to kindle laughter and set joy afloat.
Aside from the church-going,—with the hymns and anthems sung in concert and the reading of the service,—the special event of the day was the distribution of the mysterious contents of the great boxes which had come days before. There were presents for every one; nobody, guest or member of the family, was forgotten, and whether costly, or homely but useful, the gifts seemed to give equal joy. It was the season of good-will, in which the kindly thought, not the costliness of the gift, was alone considered, and when all tokens of kindliness were accepted in the same spirit of gratefulness and enjoyment.
A special feature of a Christmas on the plantation, especially "before the war," was the row of shining, happy black faces that swarmed up to the great house in the morning light, with their mellow outcry of "Merry Christmas, massa!" "Merry Christmas, missis!" and their hopeful looks and eyes bulging with expectation. Joyful was the time when their gifts were handed out,—useful articles of clothing, household goods, and the like, all gladly and hilariously received, with a joy as childlike as that of the little ones with their stockings. Off they tripped merrily through the snow with their burdens, laughing and joking, to their cabins, where dinners awaited them which were humble copies of that preparing for the guests at the master's table. Turkey was not wanting, varied here and there by that rare dish of raccoon or "possum" which the Southern darky so highly enjoys.
The great event of the mansion house was the dinner. All day till the dinner-hour the kitchen was full of busy preparation for this crowning culmination of the festival. Cooks there were in plenty, and the din of their busy labor and the perfume of their culinary triumphs seemed to pervade the whole house.
When the dinner was served, it was a sight to behold. The solid old mahogany table groaned with the weight laid upon it. In the place of honor was the big gobbler, brown as a berry and done to a turn. For those who preferred other meat there was a huge round of venison and an artistically ornamented ham. These formed the backbone of the feast, but with and around them were every vegetable and delicacy that a Southern garden could provide, and tasteful dishes which it took all the ingenuity of a trained mistress of the kitchen to prepare. This was the season to test the genius of the dusky Southern cooks, and they had exhausted their art and skill for that day's feast. On the ample sideboard, shining with glass, was the abundant dessert, the cakes, pies, puddings, to other aids to a failing appetite that had been devised the day before.
That this dinner was done honor to need scarcely be said. The journey the day before and the outdoor exercise in that day's frosty air had given every one an excellent appetite, and the appearance of the table at the end of the feast showed that the skill of Aunt Dinah and her assistants had been amply appreciated. After dinner came apple-toddy and eggnog, and the great ovation to the Christmas good cheer was at an end.
But the festival was not over. Games and dances followed the feast. The piano-top was lifted, and light fingers rattled out lively music to which a hundred flying feet quickly responded. Country-dances they were, the lancers and quadrilles. Round dances were still looked upon in that rural locality as an improper innovation. The good old major, in his frock coat and high collar, started the ball, seizing the prettiest girl by the hand and leading her to the head of the room, while the others quickly followed in pairs. Thus, with the touch of nimble fingers on the ivory keys and the tap of feet and the whirl of skirts over the unwaxed floor, mingled with jest and mirth, the evening passed gayly on, the old-fashioned Virginia reel closing the ball and bringing the day's busy reign of festivity to an end.
But the whites did not have all the fun to themselves. The colored folks had their parties and festivities as well, their mistresses superintending the suppers and decorating the tables with their own hands, while ladies and gentlemen from the mansion came to look on, an attention which was considered a compliment by the ebon guests. And the Christmas season rarely passed without a colored wedding, the holidays being specially chosen for this interesting ceremony.
The dining-room or the hall of the mansion often served for this occasion, the master joining in matrimony the happy couple; or a colored preacher might perform the ceremony in the quarters. But in either case the event went gayly off, the family attending to get what amusement they could out of the occasion, while the mistress arranged the trousseau for the dusky bride.
But it is with the one Christmas only that we are here concerned, and that ended as happily and merrily as it had begun, midnight passing before the festivities came to an end. How many happy dreams followed the day of joy and how many nightmares the heavy feast is more than we are prepared to put on record.