Christmas on the Rio Negro (December 1880)

Number 14 in a series. Starting in 1878, Ernest T. Morris began writing an infrequent column on his many travels in the Amazon River basin as a “Special Correspondent” for the New York World. All of his trips are described in my biography of Morris, A Boy Naturalist in the Amazon, but in that text I only quote fragments of some of his World columns. Morris’s own writing is wonderfully evocative, and conveys his remarkable appreciation of natural beauty–but also his cultural chauvinism (which, considering his era, was mild by comparison to other travel narratives). The following was printed in the April 26, 1881 edition of the New York World; but was written prior to the column that appeared on April 12.

Tauapassasu [Taucapeçaçu], Rio Negro, Brazil, December 25, 1880.–“Can It Be Christmas!,” thought I as I opened the windows of my hut this morning; and to one from a Northern climate to whom Christmas-tide has always been a season of short days and dark, cold, snowy weather it seems strange to have it come with such bright skies, green trees and warm breezes. As I walked through the little garden to the palm-thatched shed where all the cooking is done, the air was fragrant with the odor of roses and jasmine. On all sides were orange trees loaded with ripe fruit. The birds as well as the floral world show the influence of the morning. Flocks of parrots and paroquets flew over to the feeding grounds in the low island of the Negro, while a few early butterflies spread their damp wings in the warm rays of the sun. No, there was nothing to remind me that it was Christmas. I
made my morning coffee, before taking which a Brazilian is never thoroughly awake, and in this I am a thorough Brazilian. But I drank my coffee this morning with a feeling akin to that of home-sickness as I thought of the roast turkey and never-to-be forgotten plum pudding at home.

I have just returned from a voyage over the rapids of the Negro, but not in time to send to Manaos for provisions, so I can have no Christmas feast. There is no padre in the village, which I much regret, as on the lower Amazon I always dined with the padre, who, as with padres all the world over, are not insensible to the good things of this life. But without provisions and with no padre to entertain me, I resolved to visit an Indian feast, for the prospect of passing the day quietly was not to be thought of. The house in which the feast was to be held was but a mile above the settlement and all the inhabitants of the village had congregated there. Taking my canoe I paddled up the river, which is now rising, and soon reached the port, which was full of canoes, many of which had come from the eastern bank, distant fifteen miles. A number of women and children were bathing in the clear waters and several swam out and laid hold of my canoe. The women are good swimmers but not particularly modest, notwithstanding the assertions or some travelers. Especially during a feast they throw off all restraint.

On beaching the canoe the little smoke-stained children, all of whom had paid me many a visit, bringing me torn butterflies to exchange for bread, crowded around for a blessing, a custom which though tiresome to a stranger, I would advise all Brazilian travelers to pay particular regard to, as often in these little settlements money will not buy provisions or procure service when a blessing given to the young or a kind word to the old is not forgotten, and is often more than repaid in chickens, eggs and fruit. “Enter co Deos,” said the host (an old Indian dressed in a new, tight-fitting pair of cotton trousers, on the leg of which in large blue letters was the word Lowell) as we stood before a large open palm structure over which the branches of tall breadfruit trees with deeply cut leaves formed a dense canopy and hung heavy with prickly fruit. On entering we were cordially greeted by the giver of the feast and several old women, who, seated on the earthen floor, were engaged in removing the pulp from the sour orange, the rind to be used as a vessel in which they burn turtle oil with which to illuminate the house and grounds. Adjoining the house were several open sheds under which were swung cotton hammocks, while over steaming pots stood the cooks.

By all I was made welcome and was soon on the best of terms not only with the cooks, but, thanks to a bottle of Florida water, with all the dark-eyed girls. Young men and old were trimming the house with dwarf palms, trailing lycopodium and many curious flowering vines. There was no mistletoe used in the decorations, although the woods are full of it. Let it not be inferred, however, that the Rio Negro girls can only be kissed “under the mistletoe.” They have no such timid bashfulness and are pretty enough to be kissed oftener than they can be caught under a mistletoe bough. As a young naturalist, I am, of course, an admirer of all things beautiful in nature, whether it be an insect or an Indian girl; but there is a difference between the two.

About 4 in the afternoon, and after everybody had taken a bath, donned their best clothes and plentifully oiled their hair with cinnamon oil (a late importation from France), we were summoned by the noise of a large drum to the Quartel to dine. All now crowded into the large room where we were served by the women, who do not dine with their lords but are content to wait until the second table and partake of what is graciously left them. It was a quiet dinner (for an Indian never talks while he eats), and to-day, although it was not the first time I have eaten with the Indians, I could barely conceal my disgust and wondered how I could ever become accustomed to the habits of these so-called civilized people. Excepting the spoons, which were rarely used, I saw no difference between this feast and that of the Indians of the far upper Tapajos. But to turn to a pleasanter topic.

At dark great bonfires and little turtle-oil lamps were lit, rather unnecessarily, as the night was clear and luminous. With what wonderful brilliancy do the stars shine in the tropics and how beautiful the river looked. I believe the time is not distant when our people instead of passing the winter in the ever-changing climate of Florida will seek the glorious climate of the Amazon. All that we need is a few more travelers like Professor Orton who, though we differ from him in many of his descriptions, did not exaggerate the climate or make his readers believe that the inhabitants of the River Amazon were all savages. But to return to the feast.

After the dinner was over, the host approached and asked me whether I thought it best for them to pray to the saint before or after the dances. I saw that the young people were impatient; yet I advised him to say the prayers and cut them short before beginning the dancing. Accordingly the doors of a large box were opened, displaying the saint, which was a plaster of Paris doll gaily attired in pink gauze and numerous colored ribbons. Now, this saint had cost the owner 20 milreis (a milreis is equal to 50 cents), had been blessed by the priest for 4 milreis, and had just returned from a voyage of sixty miles to Manaos, where it heard mass at the cost of 15 milreis. Before the shrine a white cloth was placed and the Ave Marla was sung. I stood apart in the open door and observing their serious faces could not but give them credit for earnestness in their devotion, on arising they all went forward and reverently kissed the feet of the image, upon which the little children gazed with awe. The assemblage then resumed their seats on the long benches, and little cups of coffee and chocolate such as only a Brazilian can make were served in place of caxaca [cachaça] or rum, as is the custom in eastern Peru.

The musicians were three coyly attired young fellows, who wore their shirts outside of their trousers, the tail reaching below the knees, and who were conducted to the seat of honor on top of the table, where much time was spent in tuning (?) a fiddle and two guitars. An obliging maiden and I opened the dance with the Lundune—a dance full of graceful movements and waving of handkerchiefs varied by the quick approach and retreat. I did not disdain to take part in the dancing several times and soon forgot all the hardships of the past months and my longing for turkey and plum pudding.

When the music and pounding on empty boxes grew fierce and quick the Lundune changed into a jig.
On taking our seats, for only one couple dance at a time, we were served with hot coffee. The perspiration was now pouring down the faces of the musicians, and the Indian whose duty it was to pound the box had worked himself out of his shirt. We called his attention to the fact, but he only grinned and redoubled his efforts.

At midnight, pleading hard work on the morrow, I took my leave and paddled back to the deserted settlement. On entering my hut it seemed lonely after the scene I had just left. But it is “home” for the present. I have in it my well-worn books. Bats have built their nests in the old palm-thatched roof and keep up a twittering all night long, and spiders have woven most curious webs in the corners of the room. I can throw open the low windows and look below on the broad river stretching away in the distance. Such a night, tired as I was, did not incline me to sleep, hence this letter to THE WORLD. To-morrow I shall enter the forest to the east in search of Cattleya el dorado. –Ernest Morris

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