Home for the Holidays

The Tangled Origins of the South’s Holiday Traditions

Embracing the roots of our rites and routines

Photo: Adobe

Out east of town, my father and grandfather had land that had been cleared for pasture at some colonial moment, but was now tattooed with trees so inexplicably random that their seed could only have been incubated in some grazing deer’s gut or shat out by birds down for a breather from the flyway. The stands included some evergreens, whose haphazard taint was one reason everybody had ignored that section.

Home from school one holiday break with nothing better to do than drive around town looking for different combinations of trouble, my brothers and I thought we’d give the Christmas tree an even more homemade aspect by cruising what there was of that crazy-man timber and cutting our own. Why buy the damn thing when you had them growing out back, was the thought, but as I read it now, the impulse was a barely laudable and largely vain attempt at home-front holiday decommercialization. With an ax.

Cutting down a tree is different from going to buy one—you ask yourself in a deeper way what the hell you are doing. Not a man of the three of us knew how to ride timber and sustain the stand’s future. Per our mother’s long-established design code, we needed something around fifteen feet. She thought all yard or roof ornamentation was, as she put it, “common as pig tracks,” but the tree was a different story. The tree had to be tall enough to shine out through the clerestory windows to the road.

We grew sharper at the cull, but it would be years before we thought to plant a tree rather than take one, and years more before we realized that the mad seasonal chase for millions of trees in England and in America was a relentlessly fabricated series of accidents set in play by “Mad” King George III’s German wife, Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. It was her theatrical caprice to put up the pre-Christian Tannenbaum, popular in Germany and Nordic Europe, as a kids’ distraction. But it took Queen Victoria, and nineteenth-century PR—newspapers printed glowing descriptions of the palace trees erected by Victoria’s German-born consort, Prince Albert—to cement the tree fetish in Britain and thus in Anglophiliac America.

illustration: Diana Bolton

Before traditions become features of a culture, they’re spawned in some cargo-cult circumstance from the things at hand. So, there we were, a century on from Albert and Victoria, three brothers heading out into Alabama cotton country to fell an unsuspecting evergreen because some saccharine London editors decided to boost their circulations by describing decorative German affectations at Buckingham Palace starting in the 1840s. The tree was a palace bauble.

The South’s Christmas remains this country’s most entertaining and unapologetically agrarian cargo-cult product, a true human mash-up shaped by streams of colonial influence grafted willy-nilly onto a kaleidoscope of Christian and pagan habitus, with, lately, more than a bit of the mindless dash to Walmart tossed in. The dominant French and English traditions salt the culture today as their warring armies did, meaning traditions are laid roughly along the curlicued territory lines upon which the global powers found themselves as the eighteenth century wound down. That’s why king cakes pretty much stop their northward march from the Gulf of Mexico around Montgomery.

The French didn’t pay much mind to Christmas, exchanging gifts instead at New Year’s and celebrating Epiphany in early January with their king cakes, but, true to their culinary renown, they invented a way to commemorate the December holiday by staging a late-night dinner. That left the Gulf capitals of Mobile and New Orleans with the unbeatable tradition of réveillon—from the noun réveil, or waking, but in this usage it denotes the Christmas Eve bacchanal.

French tradition lost the culture war for the soul of a Southern Christmas relatively late, in the mid-nineteenth century. The decisive battle was fought and won not in Mobile or New Orleans but back in London, with the publication of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Dickens’s influence on the global celebration of the holiday cannot be overstated. Raised in the Victorian period’s Industrial Revolution as an underprivileged “factory child,” he had a mission to refocus the holiday on acts of charity. As a result of his novella’s intense popularity, the festivities themselves moved, as midday Christmas Day dinners featuring a turkey such as that old Ebenezer sent to Tiny Tim were laid on, and bang, the twenty-fifth as we know it became an instant “tradition.”

Hoary and trusted as we might believe the beloved traditions to be, if you scratch them a bit, they give up some surprises in their backstories. In the South’s case, a northern-German-born queen of England, a few tattered French explorers who settled on a portage in the mouth of the Mississippi, a child of the poor in London whose literary talents were so great that he became the voice of England in his day—all made Christmas. Their message is that the world operates as a cargo cult. We are the sum of what we carry. At Christmas, celebrate that.