As with most young children, Christmas was the most wonderful and magical time of the year for me and my siblings. Whether the Christmas tree was the silver metallic one with the rotating color wheel , real, or artificial, we were mostly fixated on what would be under it come Christmas morning. Of course “Santa” was generous if we were “good” and I do not remember ever being disappointed. Christmas decorations and wonder aside, the best part of Christmas was the tradition of food , it’s preparation, and time spent with my family!
Although I had started helping with meal preparation around the 3rd or 4th grade, It wasn’t until I was in the 5th grade did I really start to turn my attention away from toys to Christmas “traditions “. Actually, I think I morphed into a Keebler Elf. Perhaps it was the move from Texas to a house in California with a somewhat larger kitchen with a double sink and more counter space or just maruration and the putting away of childish things. I think my mother “Roe” , short for Roenia¹ , had also hit her stride as woman, wife, employee, and mother and I was vibing off of her exuberance. By then there were three of us. I was the oldest, a brother four years younger, and my baby sister five years after the brother was out of diapers. Mom’s hormones were probably leveling off too. Yes, my father was ever present but for the most part, stayed out of the way!He was ever the happy recipient of all our kitchen output. They were the black “Fred and Wilma” couple on our block.
Mom had also amassed more kitchen appliances like the stationery blender and an assortment of bake ware and boy did she really start to do a lot more baking. Her specialties – breads, cakes, and pies. Now mind you , she was an excellent cook, but she seemed to really blossom as a baker in Cali. She would cranking out the German Chocolate Cake, Red Velvet cake, Fruit cake, Pecan pies, Sweet Potato pies, Lemon Meringue and Lemon Chiffon pies, Pecan Candy, Bread Pudding, and of course, the Tea Cake cookies! She also baked delicious rolls , braided bread, and loaf breads. I remember the first time she made a loaf of real home made bread. We had the nerve to be disappointed because we had become so accustomed to the preservative-ladened soft mushy store bought loaves. We did not know what real bread tasted like! Any way, I digress , back to Christmas. Last but not least was her signature Louisiana Seafood/Chicken Gumbo. She would make two batches , one with Louisiana hot links. There might also be a Christmas Ham and for New Years Day , Black Eyed Peas. Roe did all of her cooking and baking from scratch, back then. Every Christmas she would make mango, banana nut, fruitcake, and other flavored mini loaves to give to neighbors, friends, and church members.
I was her apprentice in the cookie and bundt cake department. I was unstoppable with my cookie cookbook and cookie recipes from her Woman’s Day, Family Circle, and Better Homes and Gardens magazines. I am not sure where mom got the bundt cake recipes from but I was the bundt cake princess , following the recipes to a tee for Coffee Cakes, Seven Up Cakes, and Sock it to me. So, long story short, I grew up in a cooking/baking vortex whose origins I never really understood because I did not grow up around my mother’s “people” in New Roads, Louisiana neighborhood.
Well it wasn’t until I became an adult did I really start to understand the origins of my mother’s baking habits. and why she clung to them so. More and more, she began to share fond memories of spending much of her time in the kitchen with her own mother Mariah Nelson (née Pierson) who was from St. Francisville, right across the Mississippi River. Mariah was an excellent cook and seamstress and loved baking cakes. My mother and nephew recall how the little house on Parent Street entertained many visitors during the holidays. Family, neighbors, church members would stop by to visit . The table was decorated with the finest house hold linen . There were cakes , pies, tea cakes. coffee, lemonade, warm eggnog, and oh yes , a big stock pot of gumbo. Mom said, some families would stay up all night. Perhaps if you were Catholic there may have been traditions around attending mass Christmas eve or midnight. This was the custom in Pointe Coupee Parish and probably most of Louisiana. There were other holidays that would also mimic the Christmas “open house” tradition like New Years, Mardis Gras, and Easter. The opening up of their homes was a ministry of hospitality, not done out of a need to entertain or impress, but out of love, genuine concern, and a desire to fellowship with others.
My mother also recalls spending the night with relatives the Haynes – Aunt Lena(née Albert) and Uncle William who lived near the plantation off the “levee”. Uncle William would make a big pot of eggnog spiked with a little whiskey. My mother and her brothers would be rough housing and pillow fighting instead of sleeping. Uncle William would call them to the kitchen table and offer them a bed time snack of tea cakes and yes, that eggnog! Well as you can guess, afterwards, they had no problems getting “nestled and snug ” in their beds and after the eggnog night cap, the sugar plums were definitely dancing. My parents continued the tradition of making home made muscadine wine for many years!
By the time my mother was sixteen, her and her siblings were orphans. Their father Rev. Albert Nelson passed away when my mother was six years old and Mariah died when she was sixteen. My mother had been very close to her mother and her death represented a tremendous loss. We will never fully understand the impact that her and her husband’s early passing had on her many descendants. Yet their prayers for their family and community continue to be answered. We know that Mariah lives on through the recipes and traditions that our families have clung to over the years.
Merry Christmas and Joyeux Noel and remember some traditions are priceless treasure worth sharing and handing down! They should always evolve to reflect your own new traditions and maintaining old traditions should not be burdensome and should not keep you from enjoying hat is most important! These days, Roe doesn’t mind taking some short cuts to maximize her time with family and friends like using her Duncan Hines Cake Mix and purchasing the dinner rolls!
¹Roenia is a retired registered dietitian with over 50 years experience. She graduated with a B.S. in Foods in Nutrition with a minor in Chemistry from Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA and an M.S. from the University of Hawaii with in Nutritional Sciences. She has always been close to food and enjoyed sewing and all manner of crafting. She once descibed herself as a jack of all trades.