Christmas traditions largely unchanged since 1850s

Published 10:14 pm Saturday, December 8, 2012

This appropriately timed column is being reprinted.

I’ve wondered what Mahala Roach’s neighbors down on Depot Street thought when they saw an evergreen tree being taken into her house in December 1851.

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Mrs. Roach made history that year by erecting in her parlor what is thought to have been the first Christmas tree in Mississippi. She explained what prompted her: “I had read of the German custom and thought it would be fun to try a tree of my own for my children’s pleasure.”

Traditional decorations were handmade paper cornucopias, toys, wax candles, red bows and ribbons, miniature fans, cookies and little baskets of candy.

Mahala Roach was born in Woodville, Miss., in 1825, the daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Gildart Eggleston.

In the 1840s she moved to Vicksburg and married an Irish immigrant, James Roach, who was in the banking business.

For half a century or more, Mrs. Roach kept diaries that tell of almost every facet of life in Vicksburg. The extensive collection belongs to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Most of the traditions Mrs. Roach mentioned are still popular, such as gift-giving and a feast on Christmas Day. In 1852, she commented that she had believed in Santa Claus.

Christmas in 1860, she wrote, which came on a Tuesday, was “clear and cold. We have a clear, fine Christmas at last. I am glad of it as good weather adds so much to the pleasures of children and servants.”

When the Roach children raced to the parlor on Christmas morning they found that the stockings they hung would not hold all the presents. The girls were given dolls, dollhouse furniture and dishes, tiny gold rings, and money. The boys’ gifts were red-topped boots, jumping jacks, barlow knives and horns. All received candy and plenty of fireworks.

On Christmas morning and again in the afternoon, Mrs. Roach called on friends, giving and receiving gifts. Among items given to her was a basket of apples, books, two bottles of wine, a gold cross and a bouquet of violets and geraniums.

In midafternoon the family sat down to a lavish meal that included oysters, turkey, ham, fish, Irish and sweet potatoes, beans, rice, three kinds of bread, three kinds of cake, pies, custard, fruit, cheese and nuts.

Upon returning from her afternoon visits, Mrs. Roach found “bright fires and a nice supper, and thus ended my Christmas day, which has been very pleasant, thanks be to my kind friends and to Him who has given me so many blessings.”

She concluded her diary entry with, “Thanks be to God. Merry Christmas to us all.”

Gordon Cotton is a historian and author who lives in Vicksburg.