New Year's Day on the plantations was an occasion of great merriment and pleasure for the slaves. Its observance gave rise to scenes so characteristic of old times that I shall endeavor to describe them.
At daylight, on the 1st of January, the rejoicing began on the plantation; everything was in an uproar, and all the negroes, old and young, were running about, shaking hands and exchanging wishes for the new year. The servants employed at the house came to awaken the master and mistress and the children. The nurses came to our beds to present their souhaits. To the boys it was always, "Mo souhaité ké vou bon garçon, fé plein l'argent é ké vou bienhéreux;" to the girls, 'Mo souhaité ké vou bon fie, ké vou gagnin ein mari riche é plein piti."
Even the very old and infirm, who had not left the hospital for months, came to the house with the rest of l'atelier for their gifts. These they were sure to get, each person receiving a piece of an ox killed expressly for them, several pounds of flour, and a new tin pan and spoon. The men received, besides, a new jean or cottonade suit of clothes, and the women a dress and a most gaudy head-kerchief or tignon, the redder the better. Each woman that had had a child during the year received two dresses instead of one. After the souhaits were presented to the masters, and the gifts were made, the dancing and singing began. The scene was indeed striking, interesting and weird. Two or three hundred men and women were there in front of the house, wild with joy and most boisterous, although always respectful.
Their musical instruments were, first, a barrel with one end covered with an ox-hide — this was the drum; then two sticks and the jawbone of a mule, with the teeth still on it — this was the violin. The principal musician bestrode the barrel and began to beat on the hide, singing as loud as he could. He beat with his hands, with his feet, and sometimes, when quite carried away by his enthusiasm, with his head also. The second musician took the sticks and beat on the wood of the barrel, while the third made a dreadful music by rattling the teeth of the jawbone with a stick. Five or six men stood around the musicians and sang without stopping. All this produced a most strange and savage music, but, withal, not disagreeable, as the negroes have a very good ear for music, and keep a pleasant rhythm in their songs. These dancing songs generally consisted of one phrase, repeated for hours on the same air.
In the dance called carabiné, and which was quite graceful, the man took his danseuse by the hand, and made her turn around very rapidly for more than an hour, the woman waving a red handkerchief over her head, and every one singing —
"Madame Gobar, en sortant di bal,
Madame Gobar, tignon li tombé."
The other dance, called pilé Chactas, was not as graceful as the carabiné, but was more strange. The woman had to dance almost without moving her feet. It was the man who did all the work: turning around her, kneeling down, making the most grotesque and extraordinary faces, writhing like a serpent, while the woman was almost immovable. After a little while, however, she began to get excited, and, untying her neckerchief, she waved it around gracefully, and finally ended by wiping off the perspiration from the face of her danseur and also from the faces of the musicians who played the barrel and the jawbone, an act which must have been gratefully received by those sweltering individuals.
The ball, for such it was, lasted for several hours, and was a great amusement to us children. It must have been less entertaining to our parents, but they never interfered, as they considered that, by a well-established custom, New Year's Day was one of mirth and pleasure for the childlike slaves. Very different is this scene from those described in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," for the slaves were certainly not unhappy on the plantations. The proof of this is, that, although our equals politically and citizens of the United States, they often refer to the time of slavery, and speak willingly of those bygone days.
Another custom which was quite interesting was the cutting of the last cane for grinding. When the hands had reached the last rows left standing, the foreman (commandeur) chose the tallest cane, and the best laborer (le meilleur couteau) came to the cane chosen, which was the only one in the field left uncut. Then the whole gang congregated around the spot, with the overseer and foreman, and the latter, taking a blue ribbon, tied it to the cane, and, brandishing the knife in the air, sang to the cane as if it were a person, and danced around it several times before cutting it. When this was done, all the laborers, men, women and children, mounted in the empty carts, carrying the last cane in triumph, waving colored handkerchiefs in the air, and singing as loud as they could. The procession went to the house of the master, who gave a drink to every negro, and the day ended with a ball, amid general rejoicing.
Shooting at the papegai was another great popular amusement. A rade bird representing a rooster was made of wood, and was placed on a high pole to be shot at. A calf or an ox was killed, and every part of the wooden bird represented a similar portion of the animal. All who wanted to shoot had to pay a certain amount for each chance. This sport is still a favorite one in the country, both with the whites and the blacks, but not so much so as before the war.
The negroes, as all ignorant people, are very superstitious. The celebrated sect of the Voudoux, of which so much has been said, was the best proof of the credulity and superstition of the blacks, as well as of the barbarity of their nature.
The idea of incantation and of charms for good or evil is as old as the world. In Virgil's eighth eclogue we all remember the words of Alphesibœus:
"Terna tibi hæc primum triplici diversa colore
Licia circumdo, terque hæc altaria circum
Effigiem duco; numero deus impare gaudet."
In the Middle Ages astrology was considered a science, and sorcery was admitted. It is well known that when John the Fearless of Burgundy killed Louis of Orleans, the celebrated theologian Jean Petit proved to the poor Charles VI that John had rendered him a great service in killing his brother, as the latter had conjured the two devils, Hermas and Astramon, to harm the king, and they would have caused his death had not the Duke of Burgundy, like a devoted subject, saved his liege lord.
The religion of the Voudoux was based on sorcery, and, being practised by very ignorant people, was, of course, most immoral and hideous. It is, fortunately, fast disappearing, the negroes becoming more civilized. The dances of the Voudoux have often been described, and were, according to the accounts, perfect bacchanalia. They usually took place at some retired spot on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain or of Bayou St. John.
Although this sect is nearly extinct, the negroes are still very much afraid of their witchcraft. The Voudoux, however, do not always succeed in their enchantments, as is evidenced by the following amusing incident. One of my friends, returning home from his work quite late one evening, saw on a doorstep two little candles lit, and between them four nickels, placed as a cross. Feeling quite anxious as to the dreadful fate which was to befall the inhabitants of the house, the gentleman blew out the candles, threw them in the gutter, put the nickels in his pocket, and walked off with the proud satisfaction of having saved a whole family from great calamities. This is how the Creoles fear the Voudoux!
The negroes are also very much afraid of the will-o'-the-wisp, or ignis fatuus. They believe that on a dark night it leads its victim, who is obliged to follow, either in the river, where he is drowned, or in the bushes of thorns, which tear him to pieces, the Jack-a-lantern exclaiming all the time, "Aîe aîe, mo gagnin toi," — "Aîe, aîe, I have you."
The old negro who was speaking to me of the ignis fatuus told me that he was born with a caul, and that he saw ghosts on All Saints Day. He also added he often saw a woman without a head, and he had the gift of prophecy.
There are a great many superstitions among the people in Louisiana, but they may be common to all countries. They are, however, interesting:
LOUISIANA STUDIES. LITERATURE, CUSTOMS AND DIALECTS, HISTORY AND EDUCATION; By ALCEE FORTIER, Professor of the French Language and Literature in Tulane University of Louisiana. Published by F. F. Hansell & Bro. NEW ORLEANS, 1894.
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