En Français, s’il vous plaît: La Christine
Before the Santa Claus that we know today with his red and white outfit appeared, the children of Acadiana did not wait for Père Noël, transported in a pirogue pulled by twelve alligators, the night of December 24 as one might think. Not so long ago, Christmas was strictly a solemn religious holiday, with a midnight mass celebrating the birth of baby Jesus and perhaps a family gathering. It was only years later with Americanization that the practice of exchanging gifts that day became the norm. Moreover, it is at this moment that the word “Chrismusse”, borrowed from the English word Christmas, appeared in Louisiana French, in order to distinguish it from the religious feast day of Noël. The children were waiting for someone at the end of the year, but it was not a man and it was not Christmas. They were waiting for La Christine on December 31st.
La Christine did not leave toys or new clothes or bicycles, but fruits, nuts and, sometimes for the lucky ones, candy or maybe even a few coins. Oranges were a rare commodity to find New Year’s Day in a stocking or a shoe. As to her means of transportation, the legend is silent, but we do believe we know how she arrived in Louisiana. Like the Christmas tree, which is of German origin, folklorists believe that it was the “German” immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine who brought “Das Christkind”. To the French ear, the Christ child became La Christine.
As the Santa Claus tradition became more important, La Christine became Mrs. Claus in Louisiana and her New Year’s Eve gifts stopped in most families. La Christine has not completely disappeared, however. Some parts of Acadiana have kept the memory of her name and the practice of giving money on New Year’s Day with the greeting “ Bonne année, gros nez. Fouille dans ta poche et donne-moi de la monnaie! (Happy New Year, big nose. Dig in your pocket and give me some change!)” I do not know if La Christine had a big nose, but another folk figure associated with this time of year is characterized by the length of one part of her body.
Madame Grands Doigts (Big Fingers) is more ambiguous because, depending on the region, she can be mean or nice. Sometimes she is a witch who steals the naughtiest children and eats them, sometimes she leaves fruits and nuts, either on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Day. The legend that I heard is that La Christine brings the presents on New Year’s Day, but, if the child did not behave in the meantime, Madame Grands Doigts comes on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany and the beginning of the Mardi Gras season, takes back the gifts and leaves a lump of coal. They could, with their generosity, kindness and mysterious nature, become fashionable again and watch the children instead of that elf on the shelf.