Gifts were simpler then and oranges were plentiful. Much of southern Louisiana was covered with citrus trees. In fact, Cameron Parish was once one of the leading orange producers in the nation.
In 1892, the New Orleans Picayune reported, "The future of southwest Louisiana can be assured financially because of its gigantic orange groves. In Cameron Parish alone, 1,500,000 of the finest oranges were produced. They are said to be the sweetest and best of all.
"You can drive for 16 miles across Grand Chenier and see nothing but orange groves," the newspaper continued. "In fact, Mr. Welsh [who represented Cameron in the state legislature] proposes to furnish the Louisiana exhibit to the World's Fair an actual growing orange tree with 1,000 oranges on its limbs."
Freezes, hurricane, drought, and salt water did in the Cameron groves. Most of them were gone by the late 1920s or earlier. A bitter freeze in 1930 finished off practically all of the Cameron trees that were still producing. But they were valuable while they lasted.
In 1915, according to an account by southwest Louisiana historian Nola Mae Ross, a New Orleans fruit firm sent a representative to Grand Chenier to buy some orange groves. He offered $100 an acre -- a lot of money in those days. The farmers said no. He offered $150. Still no deal.
The farmers were harvesting $400 or more per acre and thought things would get better.
They weren't alone. The Lake Charles American (forerunner to today's American Press), reported in the late 1890s, "Fruits fit for the gods hang in rich profusion from the loaded branches of orange trees," and said that southwest Louisiana groves were "places of wonder for 12 months of the year."
Charles Fitzenreiter, my grandmother's father, settled in what is now north Lake Charles in 1898 and planted 15 acres of satsumas, tangerines, limes, and grapefruit. He called his orchard The Tangisuma.
Some of the trees continued to bear until the bitter winter of 1940, the coldest ever in southwest Lousiana. By that time, though, the biggest part of The Tangisuma had become the Orange Grove Cemetery in Lake Charles.
The tradition of Louisiana citrus for Christmas hasn't completely gone away. The Louisiana ag center experts tell me that some pretty substantial groves can be found in Plaquemine and our other southern parishes, but it's nothing like it used to be.
Most of the state's growers today are small-scale, part-time operations some of which sell their fruit directly to the public through roadside stands or from the backs of trucks parked alongside the highway.
I'm told that the 2010 crop of satsumas and naval oranges is the best we've seen in Louisiana in perhaps a decade. The problems for our citrus farmers are the same as they were a century ago -- freezes that can reach even into balmy southern parishes and hurricanes that seem to be visiting more regularly and with punch these days.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.