For some, an 1800s Christmas conjures images of Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth all curled around Mrs. March’s legs or Scarlett’s iconic green curtain dress during the Civil War.
But for others, it is a grim reminder of the South’s ‘peculiar institution’. While Christmas was a time of feast for wealthy people and fellowship for the poor, the enslaved experienced was a more complex version of the holiday. It goes without saying, many enslaved people worked through Christmas to provide meals for planting owners and their families. However, some submitted to drunken dazes while others sought their freedom. Still more were able to celebrate weddings or be satiated by something as simple as a yule log or heavy meal.
One devious form of psychological oppression was for masters to prepare feasts or gift their slaves choice cuts of meat in the hope they would see through rose tinted glasses and consider their situation less repressive. Similarly, whiskey, an uncommon treat was doled out to slaves for the same reason a large meal might have been, but often as a game for plantation owners to see how much they could drink before getting drunk while they placed bets. Frederick Douglass said of this practice in My Bondage and My Freedom, “all the license allowed appears to have no other object than to disgust the slaves with their temporary freedom, and to make them as glad to return to their work, as they were to leave it”. Many of these tricks were meant to keep down the spirit of insurrection among the slaves.
Some masters allowed their slaves to select a yule log to burn in the main house, another manipulative practice hidden in the guise of holiday generosity. The length of time the log burned was how long their respite from work was and sometimes would last until January, a very generous Christmas gift. Therefore, it behooved a slave to choose a log that looked like it would burn for a long time.
One extraordinarily strange, perhaps anomalous tradition was for slaves to claim Christmas gifts from any white people they saw. All they had to say was “Christmas gift!” before the white person could have a chance to speak to them. Some slave owners were good-natured and kept small trinkets such as sweets or coins just for this purpose. Others, not so amused by the practice, would take the opportunity to make an example of an unwitting slave and punish them severely for such presumptuousness.
There were also several accounts of slaves winning their freedom. Some masters would allow slaves to visit other family members or friends at neighboring plantations during Christmas, with the promise of return, as it was common to have children or spouses enslaved elsewhere who had been bought or sold. Of course, no person of color could travel without what was known as a pass from their master. Therefore, slaves would use their passes to travel beyond neighboring plantations to their own freedom. Harriet Tubman helped her brothers escape this way, saving them from oppression and being the object of an upcoming sale, scheduled for after the holidays. Under the guise of visiting their elderly mother, the men met Tubman instead and went on to the North. It wasn’t until after the holiday season did their master realize they were gone.
One website, Gone with the Wind Scrapbook sums up the whole ordeal perfectly, “Christmas in the antebellum South was ultimately a charade of benevolent paternalism, glorified to the limits of caricature in stories like William Gilmore Simms’ Maize in Milk. A Christmas Story of the South, where noble planters with names like Colonel Openheart ignore their own financial difficulties to buy the old and infirm slaves of neighboring plantations to save them from being sold down river.”
This article first appeared in Issue 8 of RHR the Magazine