A Slave’s Christmas: From ‘Big Times’ to ‘Heartbreak Day’
In 1937, the former slave Kisey McKimm, born around 1853 in the state of Kentucky, told the Federal Writer’s Project reporter what most of the slave histories confirm: “De great day on de plantation, was Christmas, when we all got a little present from de Master”. Another former slave, Beauregard Tenneyson, aged 87 when interviewed, reverberates it in his way: “Them kind of good times makes me think of Christmas. Didn’t have no Christmas tree, but they set up a long pine table in the house and that plank table was covered with presents and none of the Negroes was ever forgot on that day”.
“None of the Negroes was ever forgot on that day.” While no doubt Christmas was one of the most important, if not the most important, period in the slaves’ year, Christmas was not for all of them a happy event, as Tenneyson asserts. Allow me to elaborate briefly on what Christmas meant for the African-American slave population in the South of America. Christmas could mean joy but often the air was filled concurrently by the fragrances of delicacies on the table and of the fear what the New Year would bring. Christmas was sometimes called “The Big Times”, but it ended for many of them with a “Heartbreak Day”.
Sundays were the only break in the monotony and rut of the hard plantation life. Easter, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, … in principle, these “white” holidays were not shared with the African-Americans, for whom they were working days as any other. They heard the classic, annual sermons, but the rest of these days were just normal routine (John. B. Boles). However, the end of the harvest season and the organisation of the corn shucking were the introduction to the one day of the year that was vastly different from all others: Christmas. Preparations were made weeks before: hogs were killed and butchered, ham was smoked, wood was brought in, cut and stacked high in the wood-house,… Booker T. Washington remembers that those activities already meant a welcome diversion in the plantation life. He still vividly sees the hogs hung in long rows on the fence-rail, ready to be cut up and salted away for the year. “Coming directly as they did before the Christmas holidays, these activities served to emphasise in the minds of the slaves the joyous season they ushered in.”
Christmas was a special holiday through much of the South, for both black and white. For most of the slaves it was a very precious day. Though the situation was different from one to the other plantation, Christmas meant a cessation of work for one to several days, sometimes even a week or more. It usually meant a time of joy also for the children. Just like the household slaves – and many of those who worked in the field as well – used to hang up their stockings in the house of the master, so did the children in the cabin of their parents. Despite their poverty, slave parents wanted to fill the children’ s stockings with pieces of candy and ginger-cakes, and occasionally, added some extra clothing. Harriet Jacobs (aka Linda Brent), a writer who escaped from slavery and became an active abolitionist, warmly remembers how slave mothers tried to gladden the hearts of their little ones. Once, she saw how two young children proudly and with joy ran into the street with their new suits on, fashioned by their mother. Their mother had meanwhile however been imprisoned and could not share the pleasure that sparkled in the eyes of her children.
There was no Christmas without the “Yule log” burning on the fireplace of the master. “Yule” refers to the celebration of the longest night of the year and to the turn of the season as it was celebrated in the heathen feast, later absorbed by Christianity into Christmas. The “Yule log”, which use stemmed from a European tradition, was an extremely hard log burnt in the fire-place during Christmas time. Nowadays, it is associated with the log-shaped Christmas cakes, better known by the French speaking among you, as the ‘Bûche de Noël’. For some plantation slaves, the log served also as the hour-glass that allowed to count the days of Christmas time, and thus of work interruption. Booker T. Washington entrusts us that slaves would look for the biggest, toughest and greenest hardwood tree they could find, and would then sink it into water to stay there the entire succeeding year. Since the holiday season would last as long as the log had not been burnt into two parts, it was a major challenge to get the toughest log that would resist fire as long as possible and thus make Christmas time last as many days as possible…
Harriet Jacobs could not recall her Christmas days in North Carolina, without bringing into her memories the Johnkannaus tradition. Every child rose early on Christmas morning, she writes, to see the athletic men, “in calico wrappers () with all manner of bright-coloured stripes” who visited white households in the community, performed dancing and singing on the white folks’ doorsteps waiting to receive donations which they would take home to their families. “Cows’ tails (were) fastened to their backs, and their heads (were) decorated with horns”. Rambling from door to door, they beat a box, covered with sheepskin (gumbo box), striking triangles and jawbones, accompanied by bands of dancers. By hundreds, the masked men turned out early on Christmas morning and went round till noon. In exchange for their entertainment, they received a penny, or a glass of rum, which they would however not drink while they were out, but would carry home in jugs. Their songs had been carefully prepared in the preceding weeks and were often new ones. This is enough illustration of the importance attached to the happening.
Unlike the ‘Yule log’, the Johnkannaus was the continuation of a tradition coming from the West Coast of Africa and was spread to the West Indies and the southern coast of America with the African Diaspora.
On some plantations, the slaves would come to the main house, often the only time in a year that they entered the house of the ‘master’. The slaves greeted the master’s family with cries of ‘Christmas gift, Christmas gift’ to “which the whites were obliged to respond with a small gift, perhaps tobacco or a hat for the men, ribbons for the women, ginger cakes for the children, and some special tokens for favourite slaves. Drams of whiskey, bowls of eggnog and other spirits were freely distributed, and a special Christmas supper was prepared for the quarters as well as for the big house. The slaves dressed in the best clothes they could gather to sit on a dish that displayed luxury foodstuff they could enjoy only once a year (Albert J. Raboteau). It has been documented that sometimes the slaves would collectively hand over a gift to their planter, such as a homemade basket or a clutch of eggs.
On other plantations, it was the white planter and his family who went over to the slave quarters to exchange greetings, to see their dancing, and to present their gifts: food delicacies as butter, eggs, sugar, better cuts of meat, …. Often Christmas was however the occasion to give the slaves only the things that they would be supplied with anyhow: their yearly allotment of clothing and shoes. Slaves often wore the same clothes throughout the year and got a new outfit only at Christmas.
Exceptionally, cash was given that allowed the slaves to buy desired items. The owner sometimes threw the coins among the slaves, to the great excitement of the children. Christmas was also the only period in the year when the slaves were allowed to sell the products fashioned by their handicraft and keep the money for themselves. Some narratives cite slaves who collected enough money over the years to buy their freedom.
Slaves enjoyed but a small fraction of the white families sumptuous festivities; nevertheless it meant for many a feast attired with special food and extra drinks. Wilma King quotes a northern who travelled in the South in the 1850′s and called the Christmas celebration “genuine Darkey Amusements in Excels of originality”. Though dancing was also performed on other occasions during the year, it gained an extra dimension in this period of the year when the planter had allowed them to interrupt the daily routine of hard work during one or several days. The dancing was less restricted and could last longer. One Georgian report of slaves dancing for their master visiting the slave quarters during Christmas in 1805, even notes the presence of drumming which was in that context not perceived as threatening (P. Morgan).
In the Upper South, in the wake of the growing influence of the Protestant religion on the slaves cultural system, spirituals were performed and sermons were attended by the converted African-Americans. However, Christmas was not in the first place a religious celebration for the enslaved African-Americans; it had in general minimal religious overtones. Christmas was in the first place for the slaves a holiday; not a holy day (Raboteau). Solomon Northrup, son of a slave, described the Christmas festivities on his Louisiana plantation as a time ‘for feasting, and frolicking, and fiddling.’ It was the time to have a ball that started in the afternoon and could last until the next morning, sometimes during several days. (A. Ostendorf). Another Christmas account (Nolen) describes how “Sam’s feet flew with great speed, Pete leaped and shuffled, and Liverly, “the fastest gal” on the Bayou, whirled like a top, outdancing everyone” (p.32). Parades, songs and elaborate performances, combining European and African elements, characterized the slave Christmas. It was on the Christmas festival that slaves “lavished their most energetic efforts (James Walvin). The interruption of the working schedules also freed extra time for playing ball, wrestling and foot-races.
Since extra food and drinking were available, it has been noted that sometimes the festivities were preceded by slave marriages. It happened that during Christmas on a single plantation there were up to seven weddings. Christmas was also a popular time for young slave couples to become engaged (C. Joyner).
If they had a liberal owner, Christmas was furthermore the time when slaves were allowed to go to town or to visit relatives or friends at other, nearby plantations. The planter handed out special passes that let slaves stay away from the plantation for a few hours, a day or sometimes even a few days. Many husbands, wives, parents and children saw each other only once a year at Christmas time (M. Gunderson). Combined with a relaxation of the work schedules, this opportunity was sometimes seized to organise an escape since the absence would not be immediately noticed. Moreover, during Christmastime, it was less suspicious when blacks were seen alone on the streets. One of the famous Christmas escapes is the one accomplished in 1854 when Harriet Tubman rescued seven slaves, including three of her brothers whom she managed to bring to Canada (Ebony, 1984). Their master had planned to sell them, but the sale was delayed by the holiday.
Besides, the spirit of freedom, created by Christmas, and the material opportunities offered for relatively free travel, inspired many slave revolts. One source quotes that about one-third of the documented and rumoured slave rebellions occurred around Christmas. In the year 1856, the rumours alone of a general slave revolt around Christmas were enough as a catalyst for the revival of abolitionist ideas.
Was Christmas only joy for all the slave populace? No, it wasn’t.
Slave accounts tell us that on some plantations, Christmas only meant that the planter was a bit more tolerant and less lavish with the whip than during the rest of the year (W. King). Epstein quotes a 1849 Court case where the judge ruled that the slave patrollers had been overzealous using their whip when they caught a group of negroes (sic) fiddling and dancing (p. 159). The judge advanced Christmas as an argument. A case has been documented where a boy was bought in December and was given to the mistress of the house as a Christmas gift. Even in the late days of the slavery, some planters denied any Christmas break. P.L. Restad quotes an ex-slave from Virigina for whom Christmas “was just lak any other time wid de slaves.” And what is more: the master of this slave used the occasion of Christmas to sharpen punishment. He chained two of his slaves during Christmas in 1836, one “for general bad conduct”, the other for “bad conduct during cotten picking season.” In 1839 he intended to exhibit another slave during Christmas on a scaffold in the middle of the quarter, “with a red flannel cap on.”
Furthermore, as a closure of another year of harvest, Christmas was for many planters the moment to draw up the accounts and to evaluate the efforts deployed by their slaves in the past year. The state of the plantation tools was inspected and the right to a suspension of work routine, or the donation of gifts were dependent upon the results of the evaluation. If the master was displeased, he could also withhold the right of the slaves to visit their relatives or friends. Joyner reports: “Tool inspection had taken place each Christmas day since 1844. An extra ration of rice, peas, molasses, and meat, equivalent to a week’s ration, was given to ‘all who are not defaulted in showing their working utensils and who have not been guilty of any ‘greivous’ (sic) offence during the year”. I am convinced that in many slave’s mind, Christmas only sharpened the cruelty of the bondage system in which they were trapped. The light coming from the ‘Yule log’ or from the fires outside signified a highlighting of their lack of freedom. Fredrick Douglas, ex-slave and later active abolitionist, describes Christmas as part of the ruling moral economy that oppressed the African-Americans. The relative “liberty” granted by the planters was nothing more than a psychological tool of oppression that allowed them to show, once more, that slaves were a happy bunch of people. There was no reason to abolish the institution of slavery in face of the joy uttered during the long slave festivities at Christmas.
In this perspective, Christmas functioned as a justification for slavery. This makes clear why many planters were – only during Christmastime and under their supervision – particularly generous with strong liquor to the point even that the slaves were totally loaded. Afterwards, the argument was made that, all things considered, the slave was better off in his present state, because he needed the firm hand of a ‘caring father’ to keep things under control. Liberty would drown the African-American in a permanent state of intoxication and would only make a sluggard out of him. There was, by the way, little margin for escaping the argument; when, for whatever reason, the slave was not keen on dancing, or showed a grumpy face, he was obliged to act merry at the risk of being considered a potential troublemaker or rebel. The planter watched very carefully. A happy face was an obligation, not a right.
Francis Fedric, an escaped slave, tells it in his way:
“About Christmas, my master would give four or five days’ holiday to his slaves; during which time, he supplied them plentifully with new whiskey, which kept them in a continual state of the most beastly intoxication. He often absolutely forced them to drink more, when they had told him they had had enough. He would then call them together, and say, “Now, you slaves, don’t you see what bad use you have been making of your liberty? Don’t you think you had better have a master, to look after you, and make you work, and keep you from such a brutal state, which is a disgrace to you, and would ultimately be an injury to the community at large?” Some of the slaves, in that whining, cringing manner, which is one of the baneful effects of slavery, would reply, “Yees, Massa; if we go on in dis way, no good at all.”
“Thus, by an artfully contrived plan, the slaves themselves are made to put the seal upon their own servitude. The masters, by the system, are rendered as cunning and scheming as the slaves themselves.”
Eugene Genovese remarks that Christmas offered the planters the opportunity to develop a sense of community between them and their slaves. The gifts, the extra food, the possibility for travelling, and the relaxation of the rules on dancing were at the same time instruments to instil in slaves a sense that welfare and plantation were the same. The organisation of the Christmas activities by the plantation owner was a strong ideological tool to confirm and strengthen the existing power relations between the two races. David J. Libby suspects, in a similar reasoning, that the planter organised the Christmas feast in part to keep the slaves content, while remaining constantly vigilant to prevent the frolic from getting out of hand. If strict members of the church did not want to dance, they would anyhow be forced to do so if it were only to please the master (A.J. Raboteau). Dancing was expected from them. In his autobiography, Frederick Douglas notes that slaves who preferred to devote their time to working for themselves or to handicraft activities were regarded by the master as scarcely deserving the holiday. It was interpreted as a rejection of the favours granted to them.
In Frederic Douglas’ eyes, Christmas was thus a safety valve to carry off the rebellious spirit. The planters are liberal not because they want their slaves to enjoy themselves, but because they realise that depriving them of the feasts would be the surest way to create upheavals. This was also the reason the planters wanted the slaves to have a happy time. A grumpy mood did not fit the image and the objectives of their generosity.
Finally, for the slaves who were hired out by their masters on an annual basis, New Year’s Day hang as a threatening shadow over all festivities. Harriet Jacobs, writes in her famous “Incidents in the Life of a slave girl”:
“Hiring-day at the south takes place on the 1st of January. On the 2d, the slaves are expected to go to their new masters. (…) (On) New Year’s eve (…) they gather together their little alls, or more properly speaking, their little nothings, and wait anxiously for the dawning of day. At the appointed hour the grounds are thronged with men, women, and children, waiting, like criminals, to hear their doom pronounced.(..) (The best master) is surrounded by a crowd, begging, “Please, massa, hire me this year. I will work very hard, massa.” If a slave is unwilling to go with his new master, he is whipped, or locked up in jail, until he consents to go, and promises not to run away during the year.”
After the “Big Times” of Christmas came for many the fatal New Year’s Day when they were separated from their relatives and friends on the plantation due to a change in the work contracts arranged by their master. January 1st was for this reason often called “Heartbreak Day”. The annual hiring process at the turn of the year permeated the Christmas feast with dangerous thoughts and emotional anxiety (W. King).
As Harriet Jabobs phrased it not without bitterness: “Were it not that hiring is near at hand, and many families are fearfully looking forward to the probability of separation in a few days, Christmas might be a happy season for the poor slaves.” “Big Times” and a “Heartbreak Day” were separated by just a few days.
The depiction of Christmas given in this essay is of a general nature and does not detail the varied ways in which planters handled their slaves during Christmastime. Also, no account is given of possible historical evolutions. However, the text draws from a stock of findings common in the sources which are quoted below. A large amount of material comes from Frederick Douglas’ and Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography and writings. These writings are available on-line (http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Literature/Douglass/Autobiography/; http://xroads.virginia.edu/~hyper/jacobs/hj-cover.htm)
– Ohio Slave Narratives, by Federal Writers’ Project, 2006
– T. Lindsay Baker,Julie Philips Baker, Work Projects AdministrationThe WPA Oklahoma slave narratives, 1996
– Philip D. Morgan, Slave counterpoint: Black culture in the eighteenth-century Chesapeake and Lowcountry, 1998
– Ann Ostendorf, Sounds American: National Identity and the Music Cultures of the Lower Mississippi River Valley, 1800-1860, 2011
– Claude H. Nolen, African American Southerners in Slavery, Civil War and Reconstruction, 2005
– Mary Gunderson, Southern Plantation Cooking, 2000
– Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History, 1996
– Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: the invisible institution in the antebellum South, 2004
– Yuval Taylor, I was born a slave: an anthology of classic slave narratives, 1999
– Wilma King, Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America, 1998
– David J. Libby, Slavery and Frontier Mississippi, 1720-1835, 2008
– James Walvin, Questioning Slavery, 1996
– Harriet Jacobs (Linda Brent), Incidents in the life of a slave girl
– Charles Joyner, Down by the riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community, 2009
– Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jookin’: the rise of social dance formations in African-American culture, 1992
– John B. Boles, Masters & slaves in the house of the Lord, 1990
– Ace Collins, More Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, 2001
– David W. Blight, A slave no more: two men who escaped to freedom, 2007
– Herbert C. Covey, Dwight Eisnach, What the slaves ate: recollections of African American foods and foodways, 2009
– Booker T. Washington, The Booker T. Washington papers, volume 1