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Mahala Roach’s neighbors on Depot Street in Vicksburg probably wondered what was going on when they saw an evergreen tree, likely a cedar, being taken into her home on a December day in 1851.
Mrs. Roach, who lived in the heart of the city, made history that year when she erected in her parlor what is thought to have been the first Christmas tree in Mississippi. She explained in her diary what prompted her: “I had read of the German custom and thought it would be fun to try a tree of my own for my children’s pleasure.”
She decorated the tree with handmade cornucopias, toys, wax candles, red bows and ribbons, miniature fans, cookies and little baskets of candy.
Mahala Roach was born in Woodville, Miss., in 1825, the daughter of Richard and Elizabeth Gildart Eggleston. In the 1840s she moved to Vicksburg and married an Irish immigrant, James Roach, who was in the banking business.
For half a century or more, Mrs. Roach kept diaries that tell of almost every facet of life in Vicksburg. The extensive collection belongs to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Most of the traditions Mrs. Roach mentioned are still popular, such as gift-giving and a feast on Christmas day. In 1852, she wrote that she had believed in Santa Claus.
Christmas in 1860, which came on a Tuesday, she wrote was “clear and cold. We have a clear, fine Christmas at last. I am glad of it as good weather adds so much to the pleasures of children and servants.”
When the Roach children raced to the parlor on Christmas morning, they found that the stockings they hung would not hold all the presents. The girls were given dolls, doll house furniture and dishes, tiny gold rings and money. The boys’ gifts were red-topped boots, jumping jacks, barlow knives and horns. All received candy and plenty of fireworks.
On Christmas morning and again in the afternoon, Mrs. Roach called on friends, giving and receiving gifts. Among items given to her were books, a basket of apples, two bottles of wine, a gold cross and a bouquet of violets and geraniums.
In mid-afternoon, the family sat down to a lavish meal that included oysters, turkey, ham, fish, Irish and sweet potatoes, beans, rice, three kinds of bread, three kinds of cake, pies, custard, fruit, cheese and nuts.
Upon returning from her afternoon visits, Mrs. Roach found “bright fires and a nice supper, and thus ended my Christmas day, which has been very pleasant, thanks be to my kind friends and to Him who has given me so many blessings.”
She concluded her diary entry with:
“Thanks be to God. Merry Christmas to us all.”
Gordon Cotton, a Vicksburg resident, is a historian, author, storyteller and former curator of the Old Court House Museum in Vicksburg. He earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Mississippi College. He has taught high school history and was a newspaper reporter and columnist for many years. Gordon has written and published numerous books on local history and culture and is a regular contributor for The ‘Sip Magazine.