Christmas in St. Louis 1764 – 2014

New Year’s Eve 2014, the 7th Day of Christmas. Exterior work continues steadily on the Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France, the oldest man-made structure on the downtown riverfront, and in the crypt and museum area underground. But the interior body of the basilica was beautifully completed in time for this, the 250th celebration of Christmas since our founding.

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Evergreen trees and poinsettias fill the sanctuary which stood in stark simplicity throughout the Advent season, dominated by Charles Quest’s monumental reproduction of Diego Velasquez’ Cristo Crucificado. 

The crosses that hung from the vertical posts of the first two Churches of Saint Louis on this site, would have been far smaller, much like that in Holy Family Log Church in Cahokia, Illinois.

IMAG0086 The first of these churches was a very simple structure raised in 1770. The second, erected in 1776 was modeled more closely on Holy Family Log Church in scale and quality, with a fine Norman truss, stuccoed walls between the vertical posts, and mullioned windows lit by the rising sun. They faced the Mississippi on La Rue de l’Eglise (Church Street).

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In December of 1764 La Poste de Saint Louis, Laclede’s fur trading post was not quite a year old. The closest church, Holy Family (pictured above) stood roughly six miles southeast of the bluffs on which Laclede and his stepson, Auguste Chouteau laid out and built the village, across the waters of the Mississippi River, made treacherous by ice.

IMAG0144With neither a church nor a resident priest, St. Louis’ earliest celebrations took place in the homes of the settlers. They centered around a treasured Christmas Creche (Manger Scene) where prayers were said, and before which the children placed their shoes in anticipation of finding them filled with treats when they awoke on Christmas morning.

800px-julaftonen_av_carl_larsson_1904_2Following Midnight Mass a beautiful supper was served with special foods that had been in preparation for days, then a day of great festivity with many visits – house to house – among friends and family members.

Everyday clothes were set aside as St. Louisans put on their finery, the silks and satins and laces saved for special occasions.

When the first churches were built and Masses said, homilies were given in French and then an Indian dialect.

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Christmas night ushered in the first of the nightly balls that led up to Epiphany/Three Kings Day and 12th Night. Epiphany (which the Irish called Little Christmas) was a day of gift-giving in the tradition of the Three Kings/The Magi who brought gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh to the Christ Child in Bethlehem. In much of the Christian world it did (and still does) mark the official end to Christmastide. King Cakes were baked with little trinkets inside and the last of the carols sung.

1024px-Greuze-gâteau_des_rois French carols – Pat-a-Pan, Les Anges dans Nos Campagnes (Angels We Have Heard on High) and in time the lovely Huron Carol composed by French Jesuit missionary, St. Jean de Brebeuf, Canada’s oldest Christmas song. For there were far more French Canadians in Colonial St. Louis than there were native French.

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After arriving in Canada Fr. Jean de Brebeuf lived and worked among the Huron people in whose native language he composed the carol. He was later captured by Iroquois warriors and ritually martyred.

Written in Wyandot, the Huron Carol was later translated into French and English.

‘Twas in the moon of winter-time
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wandering hunters heard the hymn:
“Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.”

Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender Babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapp’d His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high…
“Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.”

The earliest moon of wintertime
Is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory
On the helpless infant there.
The chiefs from far before him knelt
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.

O children of the forest free,
O sons of Manitou,
The Holy Child of earth and heaven
Is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant Boy
Who brings you beauty, peace and joy.
“Jesus your King is born, Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.”

Unlike the personal manger scenes that St. Louisans had in their homes, the Christmas Creche in the Basilica of Saint Louis is nearly life-size, the figures cast in iron by the P. Serf company of New York and shipped to St. Louis in time for Midnight Mass in 1866.

The priest offering Mass, Fr. Egidius Smulders, CSsR “appealed to those present to contribute to paying for the Nativity Scene, as an expression of their gratitude for loved ones having returned home from the Civil War, or simply as a gesture of their gratefulness for an end to the bitter fighting that had torn our nation apart.”*

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According to the sign at the creche “the better part of the $800 needed to pay for the crib scene” was collected that Christmas Day. By the Civil War Era the carols being sung in St. Louis included Spanish, English, German, and many other languages along with African-American Spirituals like “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”

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A tremendous restoration/renovation of St. Louis’ Old Cathedral has been underway for many months. It will continue for many more. But if you visit during the last of the Twelve Days of Christmas and any time after, you will find beautiful surprises. Especially if you are a native St. Louisan! From color palette to artwork it’s quite a transformation back into the 19th century.

In addition to the painting of the Coronation of Saint Louis of France, a gift from one of his descendants, Louis XVIII of France to Bishop Louis DuBourg, four other paintings now hang in the basilica.

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Situated on the only piece of land in St. Louis that has never been bought or sold, the Basilica of Saint Louis stands within the original church block mapped out by city founder Pierre Laclede in the winter of 1764; the only piece of Colonial St. Louis in the downtown area still being used for its original purpose. However the present church stands in the upper left corner of the church block illustrated below and it faces south.

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It remains as it was always intended to be – a place of refuge and peace and reverence – central to and apart from, the world around it. Firstchristmascard-1 20140918_115526

References: *Poster description of The Christmas Creche in the Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France.

Illustrations: All illustrations used above – Julaftone, Twelfth Night Merry Making in Farmer Shakeshaft’s Barn, Greuze Gateau, Adoration of the Magi, Three Chiefs of the Huron,  First Catholic Church in St. Louis, and The First Christmas Card – are in the public domain at wikipedia.com.

Photo credits: all photos inside and outside the Basilica of Saint Louis, King of France were taken by me, Maureen Kavanaugh, author of this blog, with my cell phone

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About stltourguide

I am a walking tour and narrated coach tour guide in St. Louis, Missouri specializing in the history of the area.
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One Response to Christmas in St. Louis 1764 – 2014

  1. Al Katzenberger says:

    I so miss the neon lights that for many years illuminated the altar of the St. Louis Basilica. They were so unusual and beautiful and in keeping with all the other beautiful neon signs in downtown St. Louis. The neon lights were especially beautiful during the Christmas Season.

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