Long ago cajun Christmas, Town, times remembered

old historic bank of abbeville

When you’re poor, really poor, Christmas can be a very sad time, especially for a youngster. Sometimes the scar is so deep that even a lifetime won’t remove it.

My childhood Christmas’ were spent in extreme poverty. If you ask me about my fondest memories of Christmas, without hesitation I will say it was midnight mass at beautiful old St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church.

The church sits up on a knoll near the bank of the Vermilion River in the Acadian town of Abbeville. With its high ceiling and rows of massive stained glass windows on both sides, it always seemed to me to be the Christian foundation of the township and surrounding area.
It is the church I was baptized in, where I made my first communion and attended mass regularly. The service always left me with a sense of hope.

A statue of Father Antoine Megret stands next to the church he founded in 1847. He named the town after Abbeville that sits on the banks of the Somme River in France, his homeland. He had modeled the village after the French original with two squares and a park in the middle of town.

In the fall of 1853 a plague of yellow fever swept south Louisiana; smallpox and cholera were all epidemic in the middle 1800s. Father Megret attended the sick and buried the dead until he contracted the disease himself. He was the last to die in the epidemic on Dec. 5, 1883.
Abbeville is a unique town. When I was a boy, the town buildings were not very old. A fire had completely destroyed the downtown in 1907. The Palms Sanitarium was massive and even the governor, Newton C. Blanchard, was there for the dedication; also the archbishop and the mayor of New Orleans. What also stands out in my mind is the Bank of Abbeville, also built after the fire. The brick two-story building facing the church is the city’s architectural centerpiece with its distinctive twin tower design. All my Cajun folks are buried at St. Mary Magdalene Cemetery including my mom, who died Sept. 2, 2004.

I went around the horn to get back to my Christmases, but the church, the town and especially the midnight masses are really the best thoughts that have been my companions down this highway.

The beautiful mass was said in Latin by Father Edmund Duall, the gospel in French and English. The large choir sang so beautifully.

We were probably the poorest people in the area. My father had flown the coop before I could talk. Our clothes were made from feed sacks, but that didn’t keep us from attending the old traditional Catholic services.

Imagine a solitary tree limb and decorations of paper chain, colored with crayons, cut and pasted with flour paste, draped about that branch leaning in the corner against the wall. That was our usual holiday tree. As I recall we never had but one real Christmas tree. The teacher gave it to me after it was used at school, two days before Christmas. We proudly decorated it.
I had very few gifts, maybe a handmade toy, but mostly something useful—socks and so forth. Once I got a new pair of shoes that I think an uncle brought for me. Through necessity or habit we took Christmas in stride. Strangely enough, I don’t recall even feeling sorry for myself.

As I grew older, times got better. As I worked, we still didn’t have much, but we had more to eat. Recalling those days in that little Cajun town and the bleak Christmases makes me thankful for today’s good fortune. I have a very special place in my heart for the poor and unfortunate. This time of year is difficult and scarring to poor kids who don’t have much of a Christmas celebration.

So many poor children are happy at Christmas with the slightest, even discarded gifts. As I review my childhood, maybe it is in that, with the exception of insufficient food, that I was indeed fortunate. Even though I didn’t have material things, I hold something more valuable: the warm, wonderful feeling of that joyous midnight mass at that old historical church. My ghost of Christmas past, even though hurtful, was really a blessing.

Many years have gone by since those childhood days. The material things would have long been gone. What I got from attending that old church, a poor boy in that Cajun town, gave me much more than any material gifts or fancy clothes could. I learned in that life to be appreciative, compassionate and that life is what you make it. You can rise above if you’re willing to work for it.

Over the years Phyl and I put together the best Christmases we could afford for our children. We never splurged on ourselves but we took care of each other throughout the years.
Next week, on New Years Eve, Dec. 31, we will be married 56 years. We raised our three and two others and now have five grandchildren, two step-grandchildren and three great grandchildren. Even though we don’t get to see them as much as we’d like, they are always in our thoughts.

Most will never know my background as a depression baby and the trip that took me down this life’s highway. It’s been a great ride with Phyl at my side. I wonder what memories our children have of their childhood Christmas’? I hope yours are all good. From Phyl and I and our family, have a blessed Christmas and a wonderful New Year.