Slavery in the United States can be traced back to the early seven-teenth century. Although some of these colonial era slaves included Native Americans and poor Europeans, the vast majority of people subjected to slavery in America were of African descent. Slavery never became as popular in the Northern states as it did in the Southern states. By the 1830s the Northern states had all but eliminated slavery though it was still legal throughout the South. Slavery in the Southern United States ended with the close of the American Civil War in 1865.
How did the slaves celebrate Christmas? Though many belonged to well-to-do families, they themselves were poor and shared only a small fraction of the families’ lavish festivities. Many, but not all, slaveowners granted their slaves a day or more of rest at Christmas time. Some also provided them with ample amounts of food, including the better cuts of meat, a form of nourishment that some scholars believe they rarely enjoyed during the rest of the year. Some also distributed passes to certain slaves, permitting them to visit relatives who lived in different places. Slaves relished these simple Christmas pleasures, activities that many slaveowners took for granted the year round. (See also CHRISTMAS IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA.)
Many slaveowners gave their slaves three days off at Christmas time. Some permitted fewer or no days of rest, and others allowed more than three days. On some plantations slaves were authorized to select a YULE LOG to burn in the main fireplace of the manor house. The slaves’ holiday lasted as long as the log burned. Naturally the slave sent to fetch the Yule log from the woods exercised a great deal of care in choosing what he hoped would be a very slow-burning log. In this way the Christmas holiday could be extended to New Year’s Day.
Not every slave got to rest at Christmas time. Since slaveowning families sometimes hosted elaborate Christmas dinners and parties, slaves who worked as household servants often found their workload increased at Christmas time. What’s more, slaves could not count on time off at Christmas, since the master could always cancel their holiday. Indeed, some slaveowners withheld the privilege of celebrating Christmas from slaves who had displeased them during the year.
Most plantation slaves passed their Christmas holiday by taking part in some or all of the feasting, singing, dancing, music making, and storytelling that characterized Christmas in the slaves’ quarters. Some slaves took advantage of the time off to hold quilting bees. Many of the quilts they made featured the color red, a favorite shade with many slaves. Both slave men and women participated in the craft of quilting. Other handicrafts were also produced and sold at Christmas time, because in many areas custom permitted slaves to keep all the money they earned during the Christmas holiday. (The rest of the year any money they earned belonged to their masters.) Some slaves may have devoted time to a more dangerous holiday hobby: studying. Studying was dangerous because many Southern states had strict laws forbidding the education of slaves.
FOOD AND DRINK
Some slaves never quite got enough to eat throughout the year. Rich, sustaining, and especially tasty foods, like choice cuts of meat, butter, eggs, and sugar almost never appeared on slaves’tables. Since most masters gave their slaves extra rations of high-quality food at Christmas time, the holiday not only represented a mouth-watering chance for slaves to eat their fill but also afforded them an opportunity to savor some of the tasty foods that their masters enjoyed year round. At Christmas time slaves might dine on a combination of meats, including roast chicken, ham, pickled pigs’ feet, squirrel, or possum. Side dishes might include squash, greens cooked with ham hocks, salad greens and eggs, or ashcakes (boiled cornmeal sweetened with molasses and wrapped in cabbage leaves to bake). For dessert some slaves baked a cake or made sweet potato pie. On some plantations the mistress prepared a large Christmas banquet, which the master and mistress served to their slaves. (For more on slaves’ holiday foods, see HOPPING JOHN).
Many of these Christmas feasts included homemade wine or generous servings of the masters’ own liquor. This policy often resulted in drunkenness, as slaves were not permitted to drink at any other time of the year and thus were unaccustomed to the effects of alcohol. Former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) believed that many slaveowners promoted this drunkenness as a means of discouraging slaves from seeking their own freedom. After the holidays were over slaveowners suggested to the slaves that if freed they would quickly slip into a life of laziness and alcoholic overindulgence. They pointed to the slaves’recent excesses as evidence for their argument.
VISITS AND MARRIAGES
Slaves could never count on keeping their families together. Sometimes the master would sell a husband away from a wife, or a child away from his or her parents. Nevertheless, some slaveowners permitted slaves to visit nearby relatives at Christmas time. On Christmas Eve the master distributed passes permitting certain individuals to travel. Slaves welcomed the visitors warmly. Even if not a relative, the visitor would bring news from another part of the county and, perhaps, greetings from a relative. Slaves looked forward to these Christmas visits all year long. Nevertheless, this privilege could be withheld from slaves who displeased their masters.
Christmas was a popular time for slaves to marry. The joyous family reunions and rowdy revelry that characterized the “Big Times,” as slaves sometimes referred to the Christmas holiday, inspired an increased number of romantic encounters leading to marriage.
Many slaveowners gave GIFTS to their slaves at Christmas time. Typical gifts included hats, hair ribbons, tobacco, sugar, bandanas, collars, or coins. In addition, the master often offered as Christmas gifts the things he would have to supply for the slave anyway, such as warm clothing and shoes. Some wealthy plantation owners furnished slaves with gifts of money at Christmas time. They might also present them with the means to prepare a sumptuous banquet, offering them such luxury foodstuffs as beef, chicken, turkey, pork, duck, apples, oranges, cakes, pies, and biscuits.
Plantation slaves sometimes had to make a formal visit to the “big house” (the manor house) to receive these gifts. Many never entered the mansion during the rest of the year. They arrived dressed in their best clothing to perform the little ritual surrounding Christmas gift giving. Along with his gifts, the master offered Christmas greetings to the slaves, wishing each of them a happy holiday. Sometimes he gave them a glass of EGGNOG and proposed a toast. Upon receiving his or her gift the slave would extend Christmas greetings and good wishes to the master and his family. Sometimes the slaves would collectively present the master or mistress with a token gift, such as a homemade basket or a clutch of eggs.
At other plantations, the slaves did not receive their gifts in the big house. Instead, the master and mistress visited the slaves in their quarters to watch them sing and dance and to present them with gifts. Sometimes the white folks joined for a while in the slaves’festivities.
On Christmas Day, custom permitted slaves to ask a Christmas gift of any white person they saw. All they had to do was to approach them and shout out, “Christmas gift!” before the white person could speak to them. Slaveowners who considered themselves good-natured let themselves be bested, and stocked up on coins, sweets, and trinkets to give away in this little GAME.
In spite of their poverty, slave parents often gave their children a modest Christmas gift. These gifts consisted of things like home-made baskets, hats, aprons, or strip quilts.
SONG AND DANCE
Temporarily relieved from the daily routine of hard work, plantation slaves celebrated by music making and dancing. Some records indicate that these Christmas Eve and Christmas Day revels lasted most of the night. Slave musicians played music with any kind of instrument they could get their hands on, including homemade drums, pipes, fiddles, and banjos. Those who could not find or play musical instruments could still sing songs to entertain one another and to accompany instrumental music.
In some parts of the South slaves practiced a Christmas masquerade known as JONKONNU. Men dressed in tattered, makeshift costumes and masks. Thus attired they rambled from house to house playing music and dancing. Householders gave them coins or trinkets in exchange for their entertainment.
Slaves also sang religious music at Christmas time. In fact, African-American slaves developed their own style of religious songs known as “spirituals.” Some well-known spirituals retell elements of the Christmas story. These include “Mary Had a Baby” “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” “Rise up Shepherd and Follow,” “Sister Mary Had-a But One Child,” and “Behold That Star.”
Slaves attended religious services and gathered together to pray at Christmas time. Some slaves belonged to conservative Christian denominations, such as the Baptists and Methodists, which forbade dancing. These people would avoid the Christmas parties and instead organize prayer meetings. Some of the meetings lasted for hours; others lasted all night.
RUNNING AWAY AND REBELLING
Christmas was a popular time of year to run away from one’s master and to seek freedom in the North. Slaves reasoned that they were less likely to be missed at home or apprehended on the roads at Christmas time than at any other time of the year. They would not be expected to show up for their daily chores until after the holiday. Furthermore, whites were accustomed to seeing many black wayfarers on the streets and byways during the holiday season. The liberties allowed slaves at Christmas time may also have inspired a number of slave revolts. One historian has estimated that approximately one third of both documented and rumored slave rebellions occurred around Christmas. In the year 1856, slave revolts occurred in nearly every slave-holding state at Christmas time.
CHRISTMAS LEGENDS, LORE, AND SUPERSTITION
Throughout the South, both white and black children were told that GABRIEL the ANGEL sprinkled stardust on the earth in early winter. It turned into the first frost of the season as it hit the ground. Its sparkling beauty served to remind children of the coming of the Christ Child. Slaves also passed along bits of old European Christmas lore, such as the belief that animals gain the power of human speech on Christmas Eve (see also NATIVITY LEGENDS). If one crept quietly into the barn at just the right moment, one might overhear them murmur praises to God and the baby JESUS. Nevertheless, to do so would bring a mountain of bad luck down on one’s head.
Some plantation slaves celebrated New Year’s Day with a cakewalk (see also MUMMERS PARADE). In this competitive dance, couples stepped side by side, moving around the dance floor in the form of a square. Their exaggerated movements amplified and made fun of the formal dances popular among white folk. The couple who exhibited the fanciest moves won a cake.
Southern slaves and their masters shared certain New Year’s Day superstitions. Many believed that consuming a dish called hopping John, made from black-eyed peas and ham hocks, brought good luck for the coming year. Other popular beliefs included the notion that to argue on New Year’s Day meant that one would be drawn into arguments throughout the coming year. Many invoked the superstition that to cut one’s hair on New Year’s Day was to divide one’s wealth in two. Others held to the belief that to borrow or lend anything on New Year’s Day would bring bad luck for the rest of the year.
The worst luck a slave could encounter on New Year’s Day was to be separated from a close family member through work contracts arranged by the master. Those hired out to work for the year on other plantations left on New Year’s Day. For this reason slaves sometimes called January 1 “Heartbreak Day.”
On January 1,1863, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) signed the Emancipation Proclamation into law, granting immediate freedom to slaves in the Southern states. This event is still celebrated as EMANCIPATION DAY in some African-American communities.
In addition to all the other deprivations experienced year-round by American slaves, they were also subjected to unusual kinds of psychological pressures at Christmas time. These pressures resulted from the role that Christmas played in justifying the institution of human slavery to slaveowners. For example, the slaves’ own joy could be used against them, since some slaveowners pointed to the happy Christmas celebrations of their slaves to justify the institution of slavery. Others harped on their slaves’ enjoyment of leisure and alcoholic beverages at Christmas time, suggesting to them that they had a natural inclination towards idleness and drunkenness and thus were better off as slaves. While slaves ran the risk of inspiring these thoughts in their masters if they indulged in Christmas pleasures, they skirted other dangers if they refused. The master might view those who grumbled at Christmas time as potential troublemakers (who would be watched closely and subjected to possible future punishments). As a result, slaves may have felt obligated to appear pleased with the Christmas celebrations allotted to them, even when they were in fact unhappy.
Some masters cynically promoted slave Christmas celebrations, be-lieving that this once-yearly binge relieved just enough suffering and want to prevent slaves from openly rebelling against their inferior status. Others may have been less aware of the possibility that the simple pleasures they afforded their slaves at Christmas time played a role in the preservation of slavery.
In spite of all the pressures and deprivations they were subjected to, African-American slaves wrested some degree of holiday happiness out of the foods and freedoms allowed them at this time of year. Rising above their circumstances, they contributed a number of beautiful spirituals to the American repertoire of Christmas Carols. Our Christmas celebrations today are still the richer for them.