Christmas on the Coast: Unique Holiday Traditions

Around the U.S. and even in Northern Mississippi,

folks are busy raking piles of autumn leaves of red and gold, harvesting fresh veggies for the winter coming soon, and getting their coats ready as the temperatures begin to get cooler each day. But not on the MS Gulf Coast! It’s an area of the country where it rarely gets cold enough this time of year to move things indoors. That’s great at Christmas-time, when the celebrations often stay outdoors, and where folks in that area love to be on the water. Living a life on the sea and according to the rhythms of the waves has been their way for many generations, after all. And that is one thing that’s especially unique about Christmas on the Coast. Life revolves around the sea and all of its bounty every day, and this includes the holidays.

Susan Dufek Gates, a native of the Coast, says that her family usually spends the summer and fall season catching fresh fish and seafood to prepare for the big family-get-together at Christmas. Then they all gather and have fried oysters, fried shrimp, and crab cakes for their holiday meal. She adds, “We just celebrate the holidays the way we grew up with them. Having seafood at Christmas is really an honoring and a celebration of our surroundings, granted by God, and living next to the water that provides our meals.”

“Food, family, and God”

are the way we Southerners live our lives, and Jesus is always the reason for the season. Quite a few Coastal families have started the tradition of baking birthday cakes for Jesus at Christmas. They gather with their loved ones around the Christmas tree and sing “Happy Birthday” before opening presents.

Most family gatherings revolve around food–

it’s the way people socialize and connect with one another, and everybody likes good food- no matter which state or country you are located. The Mississippi Gulf Coast is no different. “Come Christmastime, everyone makes their favorite dish or pasty, like pusharatas or lady fingers. Most of these recipes have been handed down from one generation to the next,” sometimes adding their own special secret ingredient…a dash of this and a little of that, and wah-la! That’s what Cynthia Baker Powell, who comes from a long line of seafaring folks on the Coast, tells us. She adds, “Of course, everyone thinks their version of the recipe is the best!” (FYI: Pusharatas are a traditional pastry from Croatia, from which many Slavonian families descend on the Coast. For those unaware, pusharatas are a type of deep-fried nugget that is filled with yummy things like chopped lemons, dates, oranges & spices such as cinnamon, and usually a splash (or two)of whiskey…. Learn more about how to make pusharatas here: http://www.southernfoodways.org/film/biloxi-croatian-pusharatas/)

The Coast would not be the Coast without boats…or a Boat Parade on the Water!

Just about all of the bigger coastal cities have their own boat parade, often accompanied by fireworks, face painting, vintage car shows, lots of food, downtown shopping events, and Santa (of course!). Many a generation ago somebody decided, “Hey, let’s decorate our boats for Christmas!” Moss Point, MS is the most famous for their boat parade, dubbed Christmas on the River. They even have costumed boaters throwing goodies and candies out to the kids. Everyone joins in the fun, watching the glittering lights cruise past on the harbor and taking in the sights of the festive decorations. Biloxi, Ocean Springs, and Gulfport follow suit, as does Bay St. Louis and Pascagoula.

If you want to kick up your season just a notch,

in the famous words of Louisiana’s native son Emeril Lagasse, then you might take a stroll through Lowe’s or Home Depot to pick up some alligator-shaped lights for Christmas. A few Coastal folks have been known to spice up their holiday season by hanging these beauties up around the house. You haven’t lived until you’ve sung Christmas Carols surrounded by the glow of Cajun gators beaming all around you. And more than a few tables can be found serving a hot plate of Alligator Meatballs or Gator-on-a-Stick!

Down Louisiana way, they are known for their tradition of “Bonfires on the Levee.”

Forget the simple flashing lights from a bulb on a string; the Cajuns prefer to light the way for Pere Noel (A.K.A. Santa Claus) by using 30-foot-high flaming bonfires! Can you say, “Gone pecan?”  Families gather and build the bonfires, often accompanied by music, a visit from Pere Noel, lots of food, and fireworks. Everyone has a grand evening on the eve before Christmas, and the tradition continues the following year.

  • “You’re never too young to learn the tradition of making lady fingers at Christmas.” (Pictured is Jason Powell)- Photo courtesy of Cynthia Baker Powell

The holiday season is a time of gathering together with loved ones.

No matter how you choose to celebrate the holidays, we hope you celebrate them surrounded by friends and family in the warm glow of love and many blessings. If you come to visit us here on the MS Coast, we’ll set an extra place for you at the table and warmly welcome you to our holiday gathering before we head out the door to the boat parade or the Bonfire on the Levee…but only after we’ve eaten a handful of grandma’s famous pusharatas and fresh seafood! Merry Christmas, y’all!

By: Kristina Mullenix