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Celebrating Annie Christmas

The tall tale of Annie Christmas, folk heroine of the Mighty Mississippi.

The steamboat Natchez passes (and docks) in front of Woldenberg Park.

Although her name doesn’t appear to have anything to do with the holiday season, this is as good a time as any to share the story of Annie Christmas – a favorite folk heroine of both enslaved and free people of color in antebellum New Orleans. In this time of cyber bullying, it seems appropriate to reintroduce the world to a woman who knew how to put bullies in their place.

Strong women like Annie have always had a special place in New Orleans’ culture. Learn more about powerful ladies like Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau and the Baroness Pontalba – and even women who were up to no good like the murderess Madame Delphine Lalaurie – at museums and libraries throughout Greater New Orleans, and read about Annie Christmas below. Her tale goes a little something like this:

Illustration by D’Alvarado.

Annie Christmas was 6’7″ and weighed 250, give or take a pound or two. She had the most beautiful skin you ever did see and a laugh as loud as a foghorn on the Mississippi. Annie owned a keelboat she called “Big River’s Daughter.” As one her twelve sons once explained, “You can’t tame Mam any more than you can tame that Mississip.”

Down on docks, Annie was known for putting bullies in their place. She had a pearl necklace, thirty feet long, and each one of those pearls stood for a bully she’d humbled or rebuked (or both). If there was anything Annie hated, it was a bully.

Annie was so strong, she could load her keelboat all by herself – she could carry three heavy barrels at one time without even breathing hard. Rumor was, Annie could pole her fully loaded keelboat all by her lonesome as well, even against the current. “Strong as Annie Christmas” is a saying in these parts even today.

One day Annie took a much-deserved vacation aboard the Natchez Belle, a jewel of a steamboat. The weather got real nasty – some say the steamboat was headed right into the bowels of hell – but the captain, pig-headed as ever, refused to take Annie’s advice to “turn that gol dern paddlewheeler around.” The storm may have been powerful angry but no way was that captain going let a woman tell him what to do. No siree!

steamboat natchez
The paddlewheel in action on Steamboat Natchez. (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

Since Annie’s keelboat was being pulled by the Natchez Belle, she took charge. She helped frightened passengers board her boat and started poling with every bit of strength she had in her. Some say Annie jumped into the Mississippi, with towline tied about her waist, and dragged those steamboat passengers to safety. From that day on, nobody doubted that Annie Christmas could do anything a man could do – only better.

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