BATON ROUGE, — Louisiana has three traditional Christmas celebrations, says State Archivist Florent Hardy.
In addition to Dec. 25, the date celebrated in Louisiana since 1718, there's St. Nicholas Day on Dec. 5 and the Trappers Christmas in late February.
In New Orleans, the original Christmas celebrations included attending midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
"At that time, Christmas was a very religious experience," said Hardy. "After Mass was la Reveillon, a big feast that featured a menu of wild game (duck, venison and turkey), daube glace (a jellied meat), eggs, oyster dressing, chuck roast, homemade raisin bread and cakes."
While everyone was at Mass, Papa Noel paid a visit and filled the stockings of the children with a trinket and some fruit and sweets.
"On Christmas day, you visited la creche — the manger scene. Gifts were exchanged on New Year's Day," Hardy told people at the YWCA Connections luncheon in Baton Rouge.
Not everyone gave presents on Christmas. Families of German descent living in
Robert's Cove in Acadia Parish celebrated St. Nicholas Day, gathering at homes to await Kris Kringle and his threatening sidekick, Black Peter, who was said to collect bad children in his sack.
The St. Nicholas Day celebration was suspended around World War II, but has been revived in recent years. These days, a choir accompanies St. Nicholas, Black Peter and Santa Claus to homes in the cove. All the children are given treats, the choir sings German Christmas carols, and sweets and beverages are served.
The Trappers' Christmas in Barataria was late because Christmas was a very busy time of year for the fur trappers, Hardy said.
Santa had a handful of names, depending on what part of Louisiana a person called home. To those of French heritage he was Papa Noel, to those of German heritage he was Kris Kringle or St. Nicholas and to the Cajuns the gift-giving figure was a woman called La Christianne.
"Along the River Road plantations, St. Nicholas arrived on a donkey and left goodies in the shoes of the children left out on the porch," added Hardy.
The familiar Santa who arrives via a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer was created by author Washington Irving in 1819. "He couldn't figure out a way for St. Nicholas to travel around the world in one night, so he came up with this idea of him flying through the trees," said Hardy.
Howard Jacobs created a Louisiana version in "Cajun Night Before Christmas."
"Now in Louisiana, we know Santa, Papa Noel as he's called, comes in a pirogue pulled by eight alligators," Hardy said.
Another tradition in the River Parishes is the Christmas Eve bonfires on the levee, lighting the way for Papa Noel.
"The tradition of the bonfires began with the Marist priests at Jefferson College in Convent," now called Manresa, Hardy said. "It was originally celebrated on New Year's Eve."
What started as simple bonfires in the 1800s grew into such huge creations that their height had to be limited to avoid damage to the levees. Multiple generations join with friends and thousands of complete strangers for a huge celebration.
Further north in Natchitoches, the Festival of Lights has been celebrated since 1927. Begun by the city's superintendent of utilities, today's celebration runs from Nov. 20 through Jan. 6 and draws more than 100,000 visitors. It features more than 300,000 Christmas lights.