Written by Brianna Sims and Kim Samaniego
On the Chalmette Battlefield (one of the six parks of the Jean Lafitte National Park and Preserve) resides an old plantation home with a lingering history. On one weekend of December, living history enthusiasts came and volunteered their time and knowledge of the past owners of the Malus-Beauregard (MB) home and how Christmas was celebrated during its active time of ownership. There are three rooms of the bottom floor of the MB home, and the creole women who were there to give life to them each represented a different section of time within the 1800s.
The first room was representing the time of the 1830s. While surrounded in traditional yuletide decorations, our local creole lady gave the history of the time by portraying Madeleine Pannetier, who happens to be who the house was originally built for. Ms. Pannetier was the widow of Guillame Malus, and her son-in-law Alexander Baron bought the property in 1832 and had the house constructed in 1833. In the 1800s, it was traditional that Christmas was celebrated on December 25th by having family gatherings and of course religious worship. However, unlike today, children did not receive presents on Christmas day. The main gift giving occurred on New Years. So, the main “shopping season” happened between Christmas and New Years. That’s a big jump from today’s shopping season! The poem T’was The Night Before Christmas was already popular as it was written in the 1820s. Also in this point of history, a staple icon of today’s Christmas celebration is completely absent- the Christmas tree! Instead of coming together to decorate a tree the family would piece together the nativity scene together.
Here, we moved to the second room of the Malus-Beauregard house and also into the 1850s to 1880s. The creole lady who greeted us here was portraying Caroline Fabre, widow of Michele Bernard Cantrelle. She had purchased the home in 1856, and in the 1860s, she modified the house from the traditional single story French style to a more Greek Revival style. After that, Jose Antonio Fernandez y Lineros purchased the home in 1866. He added a two story west wing for his large and still growing family and gave the house an entire coating of stucco.
Ms. Caroline told us about Christmas of the 1850s, stating that Christmas was still a smaller gifting holiday than New Years, but now children received smaller presents on Christmas day. There still wasn’t a Christmas tree; however, people did go out into their gardens and yards and would bring a hardy bush or flowing plant that survived the winter to decorate with small trinkets.
Ms. Caroline had a gardenia bush that was decorated with hand painted eggshells, paper fans, and other handmade decorations. She also told us of the tradition of Tussie Mussies. These were decorated cone shaped holsters that would be presented holding candied pecans or flowers. These were gifted to young ladies by men on Christmas. The more in quantity and the more decorated your tussie mussies were, the more popular you seemed to be. Some ladies would even stay up late crafting their own to make themselves seem more popular!
The final room pulled us back into 1880s-1904. The creole lady that interpreted for us here was portraying Alice Cenas, wife of Rene Toutant Beauregard. Beauregard bought the home in 1880 and added a two story frame to the east side of the house to accommodate his seven children. Ms. Alice first pointed out that the pine Christmas tree had emerged into the Yuletide scene. The children received slightly bigger gifts now on the Christmas tree. They were mostly dolls and pull-toys. The tree was also decorated with handmade decorations and candles that would be lit. Christmas cards were gaining popularity and the legend of Ole Saint Nick was making its rounds much greater. Christmas cards were around as well and were also hand crafted.
All this talk about the Christmas season helped get everyone who visited into the seasons warm feelings. In our eyes, it helped simplify Christmas back to what it was really about- with less focus on the gifts and more focus on the family and togetherness and worship.
All in all, the creole ladies did a wonderful job and we all want to wish a great big HAPPY HOLIDAYS from the Jean Lafitte National P&P!!