by: Joan Hough
It was the very last Christmas, spent in freedom by Confederates in the Heart and Soul of Dixie-- that is in Shreveport, Louisiana. The horrors of the Marxist-Republican, Reconstruction of the South would begin at the end of the next year.
Early after their marriage Herbert Hampton and his wife Lou Ann Adams had moved from New Orleans to Biloxi and then to Shreveport. Their Shreveport home was a lovely place sheltered by tall pines and towering oak trees. The house was big, sprawling and white, made of wood, adorned with eight tall pillars and a long veranda. Windows reached from floors almost to ceilings, allowing respite from the heat of Southern summers.
It was December 22, 1864. The pleasant scent of autumn still lingered in the bright sunshine of winter in north Louisiana. The evenings were cool enough for fires to be lit in the fireplaces.
In the house were four generations of Southerners-- Mrs. Herbert Hampton, known as Mimi, her parents, Joseph and Louisiana Almond Adams, called Gramps and Granny, two of Mimi’s three married daughters, Lela Adams Harris and Elizabeth Adams Sedberry and Elizabeth’s three young children—“Little John,” Mary Catherine and Ann Cheri.
After escaping during the invasion of Vicksburg, Lela and Elizabeth had reached refuge in their parents’ home. All of the men in the family, except the great grandfather, were away in the military- the girls’ husbands, their father Colonel Hampton, and their brothers. Of the brothers, one had been killed during the Battle of the Wilderness in May, another, imprisoned in Chicago, was reported being tortured on orders of the U.S. Senate, a third brother was on a Battlefield in Tennessee.
The sadness permeating the house and all of Shreveport was reflected in the black gowns of the ladies and by the absence of men belonging in most homes. The in-town troops were mostly from Texas except for some sick and wounded Louisianans paroled from Vicksburg and sent to the hospital in Shreveport.
In the big house supper was over. The slaves had washed the dishes and were pleased there would be no need for cooking by them in their own cottages. They placed a few left overs in the pie safe and with smiles and farewells took pans of food to their own little homes.
The food was growing limited in quantity because it had to be shared with local troops. Before Vicksburg; the less perishables had been shipped east to troops, but not now that Vicksburg was lost. Because the men of the family were not home to manage the plantings, everything was less. Cotton, however, had been grown and was stored in the barn down by the river-- ready for shipment to England if it could get past the Yankees. Money for its sale was greatly needed by the family and by the South.
Luckily Mimi’s gardens and orchard had done well this year. The cellar had an abundance of bottled and dried foods, including fruit. Root vegetables over flowed shelves. Before the military had cleaned out the woods Gramps and some of the male slaves had done fine hunting; venison, rabbit, ducks, geese, as well as pork, chicken and beef filled the smoke house. Over half of it would be shared with the in-town military.
Mimi had grown up in New Orleans. Her parents had remained there until forced out by Beast Butler. They moved to Alexandria and were there for General Banks’ visit on November 18th 1864. Their home, like all the rest there, was burned on Banks’ order. They finally reached Shreveport and safety with daughter Mimi.
The little group had collected in the parlor. Gramps was toasting small sweet muffins over the fire in the big fireplace.
Little John shifted in his chair after taking a bite of muffin. “Mama,” said he. I heard that boy Bobby who visited us yesterday say that where he lived last year they got snow for Christmas—They rode horses on it. And snow is cold like ice in the river, but white and fluffy—like cake flour or maybe sugar. If you put a little milk, vanilla flavoring and sugar on it- you get ice cream! Will we get snow for Christmas? I’ve never seen snow.”
“No son,” responded his mother, “That’s unlikely. It’s said to snow around here about every five or ten years. I can’t say that I’ve seen snow anywhere except twice and just a very little bit of it then. It just floated down and melted before it hit the ground.
“Bobby said they rode through the snow in a sleigh—pulled by horses with bells on—and the sleigh didn’t have a single wheel—but flat things that slid over the white stuff.
“That is what a sleigh is, son. I’ll bet it is great fun to ride in one. “
“Bobby told me that kids covered up with quilts and put their feet on hot bricks as they rode along. The horses’ feet made no noise even when going fast and the little bells rang. The kids on the sleigh ate popcorn, drank hot chocolate even while the snow plopped down on their faces. I wish we could do something just like that.”
As the two carried on their little conversation, over on the other side of the big fireplace sat John’s great grandfather, Gramps, taking it all in as he popped little buns on a metal rod. Gramps quickly closed one eye and looked at Granny Mimi. Bobby decided Gramps had a speck in his eye.
Immediately upon hearing the word “horses,” John’s two little sisters had looked up from the carpet and their paper dolls. Putting Gramps tiny bits of sweet muffin in their little rosy mouths, they smiled: “We want to see snow, ride behind horses and hear bells, Mimi.”
Mimi frowned,” Darlings, if I could produce snow for y’all and a sleigh and horses with bells, I would. But all of my horses except Old Tom have joined the Army. We’re lucky to have enough mules left for plowing. And, of course, there can be no snow.
“Oh, I know that,” Little John said quietly, “ I know what can’t be—just wanted to tell you about it. It’s something so fine –so exciting."
Mimi looked up from the blanket she was knitting for a soldier son, “Maybe someday, honey, you’ll get to visit somewhere there’s snow.
“And maybe get to ride on a sleigh, Mimi?”
“Of course my fine fella.”
“Oh,” the little boy turned to his mother, “Bobby lived up north you know until he says his folks saw the light -- –whatever that means.
““That means they learned the truth, son, that the South is the best of places to live,”
Mimi added, “True, you can’t have snow this Christmas, but sweetie, you’ll have something just as special. A big surprise! Fourteen years ago in 1850, we got something here in Louisiana that was wonderful. It’s here every Christmas now. You’ll see it Christmas Eve.”
“Daughters,” Mimi turned to her big girls, “We need to make some popcorn.”
John frowned, “Oh, I’ve seen lots of popcorn.”
“ But not like this,” responded Mimi.” And popcorn is not the surprise. And will you be …..
His mother interrupted, “John, you’ll have to wait to see the surprise, because it’s time for all of you little rascals to put your heads on pillows and start dreaming happy Christmas dreams of lolly pops and lemon drops, sugarplums, peppermint sticks, sugar cane sticks, and pralines
Mimi grinned, “just four days from now your Christmas surprise will appear. That’ll be the day of Christmas Eve. You’ll get a big surprise then and the next day also “
With eyes bright John shouted, “ Hurrah! “
“Hurrah and Hurrah,” echoed his two little sisters.
And with the ladies scheduled to do magic things in the kitchen, as a special treat the children were taken off to bed by Gramps who said,” Granny and I are to tuck you into soft feather beds, I’ll tell you a story and Granny and I will hear your prayers tonight.” “Goody, Goody!” said the little girls..
Alone with her two grown up daughters, Mimi said, “I know y’all want to know about all the surprises. Because of the Yankee’s blockades we haven’t been able to get but a little chocolate for hot drinks, much less much of anything else. Getting wool blankets for your husbands, brothers and Papa, has taken nearly a miracle.
Elizabeth asked, “But Mother, what exactly are all these surprises you’ve promised my little ones? I know you--You won’t disappoint them. “
“Of course not,” laughed Mimi. “But I don’t think I’ll share that information yet even with you girls. It is something that Gramp and Granny and I thought of. We’ll have the help of Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Bub.”
“Our slaves?” Elizabeth questioned,
“Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Bub? They are always doing something nice for us.”
Mimi smiled, “That’s because they’ve loved you since you were born. Actually, they’ve already accomplished a great deal of their part. Now you and your sister should get some rest. Sweet dreams, sweet hearts.”
December 24th, 1864.
All had attended to morning ablutions and then devoured hot breakfasts. MIMI lined up everyone, including Gramps at the front door, jackets and hats on-- big jugs of Southern hot cider standing by. Soon the neighbors’ children joined them—even Little John’s new friend Bobby was there. They went to the porte- cochere and what to their wondering eyes should appear, but a big wagon loaded to high heaven with hay. Two huge mules pulled it with tinkling bells jangling on their manes and tails.
Every person was given a little sack containing rounded balls of popcorn held together with syrup, an apple, a sandwich, a tall mug holding a small amount of hot chocolate. Big sacks of chicken and cookies were also put aboard. Paper thin potato chips—recipe invented in 1853-- filled several sacks. The substitute sleigh ride had begun!
Uncle Bub led the singing as he skillfully drove the team and its burden over hills and dales, and down country roads. Songs and laughter streamed through the air along with the happy squeals of children.
Returning home a few hours later, new friends were returned to their homes. Back at the big house, the children and Gramps climbed down from their “sleigh” and entered the front hall. The children were hurried to their room to be washed, dressed in clean clothes and ushered to the doubled doors of the parlor. They were told to sit in the hall by the doors and listen and see if they could guess what was going on behind closed doors.
“What’s going on in there?” the curious little children asked. But their mother did not know and neither did Aunt Lela. The voices of Mimi, Gramps and Granny could all be heard at times- and even the easy to identify mellow voices of Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Bub. Occasionally laughs and chuckles were also heard.
The kids and their mother and aunt were growing more curious by the moment.
After awhile they heard the porch door to the room open and close and heard a rather loud dragging sound and people moving about in the room and coming in and going out the porch door.
Mimi came out and informed them. We will have supper this evening in the Morning Room. Afterwards you’ll wait a few minutes and then you can meet me in the parlor and see your wonderful surprise.
Finally, it seemed forever to the children, it was five o’clock and suppertime. The family sat down together in the Morning room—the children at their special little table.
Gramps said the blessing, his voice falling warm and soothing on the ears of his loved ones. A single pair of tears drifted down out of the green eyes of Granny, but everyone else looked happy despite the fact that places with silver, glasses and china had been set at an extra long table at the back of the room and the chairs there remained unoccupied.
And then it was time to enter the closed room. This was so exciting. The little girls could not keep from wiggling all over. Two familiar black folks, Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Bub, quickly joined the group of white folks.
The doors were flung open. And wonders of wonders! Before the long, tall windows with their indoor wooden shutters folded back stood what seemed to the children to be a giant, beautiful tree—its top, a perfect point. On it were dozens of glowing candles. Its green limbs were decorated with long strings of popcorn and pieces of silver paper.
The children’s eyes were dinner plate size. Never had they seen anything so startling—so bright—so beautiful.
“We’ve never seen such a thing! Why it’s a tree! How beautiful it is. Why those lights look like stars,” cried the little boy. “It’s like a starry, starry night,” said one of the little girls. “It’s wonderful,” said the other.
“It’s a Christmas tree. Look under it,” said Gramps. “Trees at Christmas are really new things to have.”
Three pairs of young eyes aimed down. Immediately two little girl mouths formed big o’s as all three children spied three little packages wrapped in pretty red tissue paper. “Are these for us? What funny, pretty paper. Can we open them now?” said the excited little children.
“No, darlings,” answered Mimi. “You open these in the morning on Christmas Day—before we go to church. They will be here waiting for you.
Gramps spoke, “Do you know that a Christian preacher, a monk, left Devonshire, England and went to Germany to teach people the word of God. He used a tree like this to teach the people about the Holy Trinity of God—the blessed triangle--the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Germans became Christians and hung their trees as a symbol of Christianity-- upside down from the ceilings of their houses
Then in the year 1510 in Europe in a country called Latvia a a Christian Protestant like us, named Martin Luther decorated a little Christmas tree with candles and decorating trees became the thing to do. ”
“When our family lived in New Orleans, our church was St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. In the year 1855,for the first time, the pastor put up a tall Christmas trees with brilliant candle lights and lots of little presents on it for the Sunday school children. That was probably the very first Christmas tree in Louisiana. In Texas, a little later, a bunch of ranchers put up Christmas trees—they got the idea from England’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who put a tree in the 1840s.”
Little John, nodded, “And this is our first Christmas tree. We’ll never forget that Mimi, Gramps, Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Bub put it up for us. We heard y’all, but couldn’t guess what was going on.”
Great Grandma looked at her girls, “The year 1853 was when I saw my first red tissue paper. It has just been invented. I was thrilled to see it, so I bought a bit and put it away for a special occasion. When I moved from New Orleans, it moved with me. And now that special occasion is here. Three of my precious great grand-kids will open three presents all wrapped up in red tissue paper. I've waited a long time for this to happen.
Mimi, with a pat for each child, murmured, “And I’ve waited a long time for y’all to hang up these stockings I made for you. In the morning you’ll find candy in them if you've been good---if not, look for switches!”
Then Mimi smiled her widest smile and taking her granddaughters by the hands, led them to the piano. “Now we’ll celebrate this Christmas of ours with music. It is time to sing, to dance, and to be gay and happy. Mama, I’m glad you made me practice the piano all those hours!”
Soon the music bounced about all over the room. Smiles wreathed the happy faces of the young and the old and the white and the black. There was singing and even a little dancing by the little girls during some of the jolly tunes. And then came the heavenly Christmas carols.
Mimi finally folded down the cover over the piano’s ivory keys and said,
“Before this wonderful evening is over, I’ve a special story to read to you. It was written by one of our Episcopal preachers--the minister in the Protestant Episcopal Church in New York City. He was a Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, Divinity and Biblical Learning at the Theological seminary of the church. In the year 1822 he introduced Americans in the north to a wonderful man named Santa Claus. He did it with a poem he wrote called “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—and also called, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
“Now Santa Claus has many names. He is also called St. Nicholas. He was named after St. Nickolas because St. Nickolas was a kind and good man, a Christian bishop who did good works, helped people, gave money to the needy and taught the word of Jesus Christ. Because he gave so much, St. Nick’s name was also given to Santa Claus. Santa Claus gives gifts to good little Southern boys and girls if he can get through the blockade. And, my little darlings, a little mouse told me that Santa Claus is coming to our house tonight after we’re all fast asleep.”
“And now let me introduce y’all to Santa Claus.” This will be your bedtime story.”
Then to the delight of children and the adults- they heard for the first time in their lives the words, beginning an amazing story—T’was the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”
After the story, time came for beds and sleep and dreams. As expected the earliest of morning’s light saw the adults awakened by the children.
Then it was back to the Parlor and to the now lit once again Christmas tree. But this time there was a difference—instead of just three little wrapped in red presents under the tree, there were numbers of presents—some wrapped in cloth that looked familiar. It was made of feed sacks and made possible by the invention of the sewing machine by Elias Howe and Isaac Singer in 1850. Some gifts were wrapped in old newspapers tied with pretty ribbons. They all looked wonderful to six little eyes.
Gramps declared, “Quite obviously, Santa Claus came here during the night. Because your Granny remembered to put milk and cookies out for him, Santa remembered to leave a lot of Christmas presents here for our gang.”
“He had to go on delivering presents other places, so now I’ll just take his place and if he put names on these gifts, I’ll give them out. Well, look here, look here—there are names, so—“
Everyone received something. Uncle Bub and Aunt Lizzy were thrilled with the gifts they received and danced off taking all the food they could carry. Later Mimi would distribute the usual gifts of goodies and new clothes to the rest of the slaves who were already enjoying happy holidays.
The family’s presents were home made things—with the exception of a shiny Confederate belt buckle and a hat like his Daddy’s for Bobby and two real little silver spoons for his sisters and some fancy hair ribbons with lace. The socks hanging from the mantel were loaded with candies the grown ups had gathered for months.
The kids’ mother and their Aunt received engraved mirrors, which pleased them enormously.
Santa left Grandpa a brand new pipe and special tobacco.
Great Grandmother received many balls of bright colored wool and a fine basket to hold them.
After the unwrapping of the gifts, the papers were carefully folded to be used again next year.
Then in the full light of morning, each person dressed, ate a small breakfast, piled into a family wagon and off to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church they went--their wagon followed by those holding the family’s house servants. The field hands would have their own services in a chapel on the place.
At one o’clock, home again, the family had dinner in the formal dining room while the sun beamed through the windows and lit on the long buffet where all the food was placed. The grown ups served all the plates. On this special occasion the children were invited to eat at the big table with the adults.
Gramps said the blessing, his voice falling warm and soothing on the ears of his loved ones. A single pair of tears drifted down from the green eyes of Mimi, but everyone else looked happy despite the fact that six chairs sat empty before a long table at the back of the room on which six place settings of silver, crystal and china remained unused.
Then came playtime for the children busy with their presents. This was followed by suppertime and more ohs and ahs and admiration of presents and then it was get ready for bedtime.
Kisses and hugs were shared, goodnight prayers said—missing husbands, fathers and brothers were given special blessings. God was asked to hold those dearly beloved men in the palm of his hand and bring them home safely. The dear brother already in Heaven was told again of the love held for him by all in his family still on earth.
Tired heads lay down on fluffed pillows. Tired bodies sank down into feather beds and were covered by quilts hand made with love.
Brains dreamed and slept. Strength was rebuilt. Each member of this little family through sleep prepared to survive--to live to love, to laugh, to cry, to lose and to win on yet another Southern day.
MESSAGE FROM THE AUTHOR: TO ALL FELLOW CONFEDERATE DESCENDANTS:
Fortunately for you and me and ours-- they and other families just like them, bravely survived through times, which grew progressively harsher, grew tougher. Unwanted, hateful interlopers arrived -- foreigners, cruel- mean, and totally controlling- bringing with them Reconstruction designed to remake the minds of Southerners and turn them into good, patriotic Americans—or at least into good Yankees believing the big lie that the war was fought by the north to free the slaves and that the Constitution was still the Law of the Land.
Our families surviving through those evil filled yesterdays made possible all our joy filled todays and the tomorrows of our children. That’s the truth we should hold tight to forever-- not only in our minds, but also in our Southern hearts. We must always honor our ancestors and honor the principles for which they fought. We must remember that we are honor bound to tell their truths to all who will listen.
The little story I’ve shared here with you is one that, although fictitious, is typical of the time, and the people throughout our Confederate States of America. Its truth is found in thousands of Southern lives. The family’s happenings were much like those, which occurred in my own family and in other Confederate homes where the men of the South were away fighting for our freedom, our God, and our country.