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Dec 23

Christmas traditions of Missouri

Christmas is a bridge. We need bridges as the river of time flows past. Today’s Christmas should mean creating happy hours for tomorrow and reliving those of yesterday.–Gladys Tabor (Still Cove Journal)

In our house on Christmas morning we honor a Yuletide tradition passed down from the early French traders who settled Missouri. We celebrate it year after year, but until recently when I researched Missouri Christmas traditions, I had no idea why.

Sometimes we celebrate “reveillon” (pronounced “rev-ay-yon”) on Christmas morning, sometimes on the day after depending upon when the grown offspring arrive.

No, Seinfeld fans, I am not speaking of “Festivus”.

Although the term “reveillon” may seem just as unusual to you as Festivus, the custom of “reveillon” is French for Christmas breakfast.

In Missouri, the Roman Catholic French, the first white settlers in the region, gathered at the home of the head of the family each year on Christmas morning to “reveil” (pronounced rev-ay), meaning wake for breakfast together.

The fare included flavored sweet breads, chestnuts, wild turkey, and dried fruit such as oranges, grapes and cranberries as well as oysters if they could get them. I discovered that in Kansas City markets in the 1850s many of these delicacies were indeed available.

The French adults did not exchange gifts, but the children placed their shoes on the hearth to be filled with candy and toys by the Petit Noel (the Christ Child). No one had a Christmas tree then.

Christmas traditions in Missouri, according to author Dorothy J. Caldwell, were patterned after time-honored traditions of European origin, some rowdy and some religious in nature. All included a time of honoring the spiritual meaning of the season and of family reunion and gaiety, as she described it.

I found excerpts from Caldwell’s writings in my hometown historical society newsletter. From that I located her article titled “Christmas in Missouri”, first published in the Missouri Historical Review in January 1971.

It is fascinating reading if you love history.

She explains how the Germans came to Missouri after the early French settlers, a history family to most Missourians, but their Christmas traditions may not be as familiar.

Caldwell references Gert Goebel of Franklin County, Missouri, who wrote that in the 1830s many Missourians held no Christmas church services, no presents were given, and the beautiful custom of the Christmas tree was unknown.

But it was not long after that German settlers introduced the Christmas tree to the Missouri frontier. Caldwell wrote that where cedar trees grew abundantly, “they were brought in from the woods, hung with bright red berries from wild bushes, red leaves from gum and sassafras trees and yellow leaves from maple trees, and topped with dusty miller or peacock feathers.”

With only native cedar trees and few pines, Christmas tree availability was scarce in Missouri, especially in Kansas City and St. Louis urban areas. Caldwell explains, “It was not until 1882 that cabinet-maker Oswald Karl Lux, a recent German settler, lighted the first full-sized Christmas tree in old Westport and in Kansas City. Two years later Westport and Kansas City citizens were able to buy Christmas trees shipped from Michigan.”

As we each carry-on with our unique and/or adapted family Christmas traditions, I like knowing that most of these are anchored deep in Missouri history.

I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas, a happy reveillon Christmas breakfast if you have one and a festive Christmas tree whether decorated with berries and feathers or with shiny ornaments and festal lights.

And I might add as Andy Rooney once quipped, “One of the most glorious traditions in the world is the mess created in the living room on Christmas Day. Don’t clean it up too quickly.”

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