Christmas celebrations are a robust form of cultural celebration in many African American households, even those that are not particularly religious. Perhaps this is due, in part, to the role the holiday played in slave life in the United States. It offered one of the rare and seldom opportunities for revelry, joy and a modicum of leisure. Though not universally true for all slaves, it was common enough to be recorded as historically significant. My mother wrote a short accounting of Christmas for some slaves decades ago, reflecting on the holiday from the perspective of an active and practicing Christian. That editorial is included below. Another more recent and more secular summary can be found here.
The following article, Thank God for Christmas! Memories of Junius Quettelbaum, a Slave, was written by Dr. Ann Robinson and was originally published in the New Haven Register on December 24, 1985. It is presented herein with her permission.
“Thank God For Christmas! That’s the way I felt when I began to discover how the African slaves used to celebrate their Christmas on the plantations of the Old South centuries ago. In South Carolina, Christmas was more than a day, it was a season. It began with the lighting of the fire on the master’s hearth and it lasted until the sweet-gum backlog had burned down to silvery ash. This generally took four to six days, depending on how wet the weather was and how massive the logs were. “So you know,” one ex-slave remembered in 1934, “we all keeps a-looking the whole year-round for the biggest sweet-gum we could find. On Christmas morning the field slaves trooped to the big house where gifts were received and given. Now, the slaves got their shoes for the winter and were admonished to enjoy the luxuries that were distributed among them: cheeses, coffee beans, snuff, brandy.
In return, the slaves might offer fresh eggs, wrapped in a handkerchief. One Northern visitor recalled awakening Christmas morning to the sound of children signing beneath his window. He looked down and saw a group of little black girls, dressed in their favorite color of green and white. They sang, “Cradled in his bed of hay, Jesus Christ was born today. Let merry Christmas be, Massa, both to me and thee!”
For the Africans, Christmas was a time for families to be reunited, however briefly or if possible Slaves who were hired out to industries were “let go” for the holidays. Restrictions on visits between plantations were suspended and pass-tickets were issued to slaves who wished to undertake such a visit. Husbands could see their wives again and mothers their children.
In many areas, Christmas was the traditional season for weddings to be celebrated. Although black marriages were not recognized in law, some slave-owners brought stability and encouraged the practice, or at least the formalities.
In an agricultural economy, Christmas fell in a slack season and absorbed energies that might otherwise be turned to rebellion. A good celebration gave the Africans something to look forward to and think back on. Let it be as eventful as possible. In the months leading up to the holiday, the overseer’s threat of “no Christmas” encouraged the disgruntled to step more lively.
The focus of the holidays was often a huge Christmas tree set up on the veranda of the big house for all to see or just inside and easily visible from outside through a large window. The impressive tree might be decorated with lacey ornaments, colored paper chains, and garlands of popcorn. At dusk, little candles on the tree were lit and maybe you could see a little stuffed bird silently chirping in the greenery or a gray squirrel caught in an immobile rush up a branch.
“It sho was a picture of beautifulness,” recalled who as a young slave had seen the magical sight.
The Africans made the most of it. For a few days, there was beauty, music and joy. Many knew how to make percussion instruments out of sheep’s ribs, cows’ jaws, the iron of an old kettle, or hollow gourds. A lucky few might have a banjo or a fiddle and play the reels.
In the cabin, the children were given treats that mean so much to children: a length of retrieved ribbon, a piece of candy carefully hoarded, a wooden whistle secretly whittled at night.
A great table was set up in the yard and loaded down with quantities of delicious foods – poultry and hams, goose and mutton, surrounded by peas, rice, sweet potatoes, and puddings, set off by peach cobblers, apple pies, gingerbreads, and all manner of homemade sweets, outlined and decorated with oranges and apples, pecans and walnuts.
Much of this remained to be enjoyed by the slaves. ““Oh, if only those Northern abolitionists could see us now,” one Southern woman exclaimed as she watched the festivities. Many appreciated the chance to take in happy scenes that could crowd out memories of the unpleasant things they sometimes witnessed.
Nor were the slaves inclined to turn away from this rare chance for giving and receiving. They took the Christmas they could get, for as an old woman remembered decades later: “We didn’t have no New Years or holidays, ‘cept Christmas.”
It is not so today. The soup kitchens are open several days a week every month of the year. Here in New England, the poor farm that once sheltered the destitute year-round has been all but forgotten.
Instead, in some nearby cities, the less fortunate are being brought to shelter willy-nilly as their water freezes, as it often does in time for Christmas.
Another difference is that not everyone takes part in Christmas these days. Some abandoned children are quieted with promises of gifts “later”. The aged and the lonely may feel it is simply too painful to try to participate. And so the weary and the heavy-laden are once more turned away and told there is not room.
And still Christ is born and we are invited to love our neighbor as we do ourselves. this is the good news that can make the season truly joyous for us, as we think about those plantation Christmases of a century and a half ago experienced in different ways, as they are today, by different people.
May your Christmastide be merry and bright!
The original research of Dr. John Blassingame is: “A magisterial and landmark work, one that merits wide and thoughtful readership not only by historians but, more important, by those of us who count on historians to tell us truly about our past.”–New York Times. “A testament to the resilience of the black spirit, faced with a primitive and largely conscienceless regime.”–Bertram Wyatt-Brown, South Atlantic Quarterly