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December 11, 2023

Christmas in the Bayou

The author of six young adult novels, Ashley Elston will make her adult fiction debut on January 2nd with the release of FIRST LIE WINS, an upcoming Bets On title. This cat-and-mouse thriller is about a picket-fence Southern belle living a double life as a professional con woman. As a youngster, Ashley and her entire family would spend Christmas Eve nights at a family member’s house, which sounds like the best kind of sleepover. In her holiday blog post, Ashley looks back fondly on the book that her grandfather would read to all the kids each year before Santa came down the chimney. It’s a clever twist on a beloved holiday classic and produced one of Ashley’s favorite memories.


My grandparents had seven children, and my grandmother kept a running log of every marriage and every birth in the back of her Bible. Upon meeting anyone new, the first thing she would tell them was the current tally of family members. Our growing family was what she was most proud of. My Aunt Bitsy took over the job of keeping track of our numbers after my grandmother passed away. At my cousin’s wedding this past October, she told me that Katherine’s husband, Clay, was now the 98th member of our family.

There are lots of great things about having a ridiculously large family, but my favorite part is how loud and chaotic and wonderful Christmas time can be. When I was young and our numbers were big but a bit more manageable, we would all spend Christmas Eve night at one family member’s house. Sleeping bags filled every nook and cranny, and each family group separated their gifts into small piles throughout the house, creating the best obstacle course. We ate every meal on paper plates in our laps, and you were lucky if there was any hot water left by the time it was your turn for a shower. It was simply...amazing.

But the highlight of those nights in houses meant for a fraction of the people we stuffed inside them was when my grandfather would gather all the kids around and read us CAJUN NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS. It’s the same story as the much loved and more well-known version, ’TWAS THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, but it tells the story of St. Nick delivering gifts throughout the bayous of my home state of Louisiana, not in a sleigh but in a skiff with a long pole-ing stick. It’s written in the heavy Cajun dialect that’s somewhat of a mix between southern drawl and French. In the original, Mama was in her kerchief getting ready for her winter’s nap, but in this version, she’s roasting ham in the fireplace and preparing gumbo. Instead of reindeers named Prancer and Dancer and Donner and Blitzen, there are alligators named Gaston and Celeste and Pierre and Suzette. The illustrations in the book were fun and showed scenes of St. Nick in the bayou. Even the adults would gather round for this tradition. It’s one of my favorite memories.

Our family is entirely too big to spend Christmas all together like that anymore. It’s now mostly weddings and funerals that draw the big crowds, and even then, it’s nearly impossible to get everyone there. I read this book to my own kids when they were little, to continue this tradition. But when it was time to turn in for the night, they went to their own bed instead of a pallet on the floor with a dozen other cousins. It was in that moment that I felt a twinge of sadness that they will never experience Christmas the way I did.