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How did Americans living under slavery experience the Christmas holidays? While early accounts from white Southerners after the Civil War often painted an idealized picture of owners’ generosity met by grateful workers happily feasting, singing and dancing, the reality was far more complex.
In the 1830s, the large slaveholding states of Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas became the first in the United States to declare Christmas a state holiday. It was in these Southern states and others during the antebellum period (1812-1861) that many Christmas traditions—giving gifts, singing carols, decorating homes—firmly took hold in American culture. Many enslaved workers got their longest break of the year—typically a handful of days—and some were granted the privilege to travel to see family or get married. Many received gifts from their owners and enjoyed special foods untasted the rest of the year.
But while many enslaved people partook in some of these holiday pleasures, Christmas time could be treacherous. According to Robert E. May, a professor of history at Purdue University and author of Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas and Southern Memory, owners’ fears of rebellion during the season sometimes led to pre-emptive shows of harsh discipline. Their buying and selling of workers didn’t abate during the holidays. Nor did their annual hiring out of enslaved workers, some of whom would be shipped off, away from their families, on New Year’s Day—widely referred to as “heartbreak day.”
Still, Christmas afforded enslaved people an annual window of opportunity to challenge the subjugation that shaped their daily lives. Resistance came in many ways—from their assertion of power to give gifts to expressions of religious and cultural independence to using the relative looseness of holiday celebrations and time off to plot escapes.
READ MORE: 25 Christmas Traditions and Their Origins
For slaveholders, gift-giving connoted power. Christmas gave them the opportunity to express their paternalism and dominance over the people they owned, who almost universally lacked the economic power or means to purchase gifts. Owners often gave their enslaved workers things they withheld throughout the year, like shoes, clothing and money. According to Texas historian Elizabeth Silverthorne, one slaveholder from that state gave each of his families $25. The children were given sacks of candy and pennies. “Christmas day we gave out our donations to the servants, they were much pleased and we were saluted on all sides with grins, smiles and low bows,” wrote one Southern planter. In his book The Battle for Christmas, historian Stephen Nissenbaum recounts how a white overseer considered giving gifts to enslaved workers on Christmas a better source of control than physical violence: “I killed twenty-eight head of beef for the people’s Christmas dinner,” he said. “I can do more with them in this way than if all the hides of the cattle were made into lashes.”
Enslaved people rarely made reciprocal gifts to their owners, according to historians Shauna Bigham and Robert E. May: “Fleeting displays of economic equality would have controverted the [enslaved workers] prescribed role of childlike dependency.” Even when they played a common holiday game with their owners—where the first person who could surprise the other by saying “Christmas Gift!” received a present—they were not expected to give gifts when they lost.
In some instances, enslaved people did reciprocate with gifts to the masters when they lost in the game. On one plantation in the Low Country South Carolina, some enslaved house workers gave their owners eggs wrapped in handkerchiefs. Yet overall, the one-sided nature of gift-giving between slaveowners and those they enslaved reinforced the dynamic of white power and paternalism.
WATCH: How Women Used Christmas to Fight Slavery
Christmas Vacation and Freedom
For enslaved workers, Christmastime represented a break between the end of harvest season and the start of preparation for the next year of production—a brief sliver of freedom in lives marked by heavy labor and bondage. “This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased,” wrote famed writer, orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery at age 20. “Those of us who had families at a distance were generally allowed to spend the whole six days [between Christmas and New Year’s Day] in their society.”
Some used these more relaxed holiday times to run for freedom. In 1848, Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved married couple from Macon, Georgia, used passes from their owners during Christmastime to concoct an elaborate plan to escape by train and steamer to Philadelphia. On Christmas Eve in 1854, Underground Railroad icon Harriet Tubman set out from Philadelphia to Maryland’s Eastern Shore after she had heard her three brothers were going to be sold by their owner the day after Christmas. The owner had given them permission to visit family on Christmas Day. But instead of the brothers meeting with their families for dinner, their sister Harriet led them to freedom in Philadelphia.
READ MORE: The Daring Disguise That Helped One Enslaved Couple Escape to Freedom
For enslaved people, resistance during Christmastime didn’t always take the form of rebellion or flight in a geographical or physical sense. Often it came in the way they adapted the dominant society’s traditions into something of their own, allowing for the purest expression of their humanity and cultural roots. In Wilmington, North Carolina, enslaved people celebrated what they called John Kunering (other names include “Jonkonnu,” John Kannaus” and “John Canoe”), where they dressed in wild costumes and went from house to house singing, dancing and beating rhythms with rib bones, cow’s horns and triangles. At every stop they expected to receive a gift. “Every child rises on Christmas morning to see the John Kannaus,” remembered writer and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs in her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. “Without them, Christmas would be shorn of its greatest attraction.”
These public displays of joy were not universally loved by all whites in Wilmington, but many encouraged the activities. “It would really be a source of regret, if it were denied to slaves in the intervals between their toils to indulge in mirthful past times,” said a white antebellum judge named Thomas Ruffin. For historian Sterling Stuckey, author of Slave Culture, the Kunering reflected deep African roots: “Considering the place of religion in West Africa, where dance and song are means of relating to ancestral spirits and to God, the Christmas season was conducive to Africans in America continuing to attach sacred value to John Kunering.”
READ MORE: 5 Things You May Not Know About Kwanzaa
‘None of the Negroes Was Ever Forgot on That Day’
Enslaved people had a long memory of Christmastime. They remembered how they used it to mark time around the planting season. They knew they could count on it for a measure of freedom and relaxation. Their inability to participate fully in gift exchange—one of the most basic aspects of the season—helped reinforce their place as men and women who couldn’t benefit from their labor. Some, like Harriet Tubman and the Crafts, saw it as a time best suited to challenge the whole society.
The adults remembered the gifts long after their childhoods were stolen by this terrible institution. “Didn’t have no Christmas tree,” recounted a formerly enslaved man named Beauregard Tenneyson, in a WPA interview. “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.”
What was life like for enslaved people on farms in colonial Virginia?
A slave is a person who is owned or enslaved by another person. In colonial times, people from the west coast of Africa were captured and shipped to Virginia and other colonies to work as slaves. In Virginia, these Africans lived and worked on plantations or small farms where tobacco was the cash crop. Enslaved for life, they could be bought or sold as property. Enslaved people in Virginia faced a life of great hardship. Those on smaller farms often lived in a kitchen or other outbuilding or in crude cabins near the farmer’s house. On large tobacco plantations, the field slaves usually lived in cabins grouped together in the slave quarter, which was farther away from the master’s house but under the watchful eye of an overseer. Although large plantations had many enslaved people, most owners usually had fewer than five, including children. Living on a small farm often made it hard for black men and women to find wives and husbands to start families. Sometimes white masters split up families and sent parents or children to different places to live and work which also made it difficult to raise a family. As a general rule, enslaved people worked from sunrise to sunset, usually in the tobacco fields. On large plantations, some learned trades and worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, and coopers or served as cooks and house servants. At the end of the workday and on Sundays and Christmas, most enslaved people had a few hours to tend to personal needs. They often spent this time doing their own household chores or working in their own gardens. Many masters allowed their slaves to raise chickens, vegetables, and tobacco during their spare time, and sometimes they were allowed to sell these things to earn a small amount of money.
Packing tobacco into a hogshead, American Revolution Museum at Yorktown
When they could, slaves spent their evenings and limited free time visiting friends or family who might live nearby, telling stories, singing, and dancing. Many of these activities combined familiar African traditions with British customs learned in the New World. Some of the slaves’ dances were similar to their African tribal dances, and their songs often told stories about how their masters treated them and the injustices of slavery. Some musical instruments used by enslaved people were similar to those used in Africa. The banjo, made out of a hollow gourd, and the drum were two instruments that slaves made and used to create music. In Virginia, teaching enslaved people to read and write was generally not encouraged. Some learned secretly, but for those living on small farms where the master’s family was not well educated, there was little opportunity. Black Virginians kept some parts of their African religions as well. The life of a slave was hard and often cruel, and their religion was an important way to remind them that their lives had meaning and dignity. Many found ways to resist the hardships of slavery. Prolonging their work, breaking or hiding tools or pretending to be sick, were safe and effective ways to resist the authority of their masters. Some enslaved people ran away to find family in other parts of the country or attempted to escape to the wilderness to begin a new life. Ads printed in the Virginia Gazette describe these runaways, and they were often captured and returned to their masters. Those who could not escape might attempt to destroy their master’s crops or other property or steal food to feed their families. Such actions were usually met with harsh punishment or death.
6 Slavery was Only in Rural Areas
Although the majority of American slaves worked in agriculture (especially cotton, tobacco, and rice) about 10% lived and worked in urban areas. They worked in a variety of skilled jobs, from dockworkers and firefighters to coopers and blacksmiths. In some cases, plantation slaves were given permission to move to the city and earn money during slow seasons. 
The majority of slaves in the city were women, performing domestic tasks in European households. Wealthy families owned a team of women who cleaned the home, cooked for the family, and did the laundry. Even middle-class families could afford one to help with daily tasks. Some of these women were allowed to live outside the city with other Africans, both slave and free.
Industries, such as the timber industry or the brick industry, would buy slaves to offset labor costs. Railroads used this method as well. There were also municipal slaves, owned and operated by city governments in the same way there was public waterworks and septic systems. The city of Savanah, Georgia owned a number of slaves to maintain roads, build city structures, and clean municipal buildings. It&rsquos even possible they operated part of the local jail. 
Modern Christmas trees a German tradition
Modern Christmas trees emerged in western Germany during the 16th century as Christians brought trees into their homes and decorated them with gingerbread, nuts and apples.
"It's the 17th century that we really get the decorating happening, and we get a movement into the festivals and the big royal courts having these trees with the gold leaf on them, having paper decorations with candles," Dr Wilson said.
The custom became popular among nobility and spread to royal courts across Europe in the early 19th century.
As Germans emigrated to other parts of the world the tradition also spread.
But in places like the United States, having a Christmas tree was often viewed as a foreign pagan custom until the mid-19th century.
During the French & Indian War
George Washington as First Colonel in the Virginia Regiment, Charles Willson Peale, oil on canvas, 1772 [U1897.1.1]. Gift of George Washington Custis Lee, University Collections of Art and History, Washington & Lee University, Lexington, Virginia
George Washington was on the western frontier with the Virginia militia during the winter of 1753. They spent Christmas Eve at a place called Murdering Town and had a skirmish with “French Indians.”
The next day, they crossed a river, visited a Native American “Queen”, and gave her presents. Giving notable Native Americans presents was an established diplomatic practice.
Washington spent the day writing orders while stationed in Winchester, Virginia.
The missionary-educated rebels had been following progress of the abolitionist movement in London their intention was to call a peaceful general strike.  Compared with their Presbyterian, Wesleyan, and Moravian counterparts, Baptist slaves seemed more ready to take action. This may have reflected a higher level of absenteeism among white Baptist missionaries. The relative independence of Black deacons facilitated slaves taking greater ownership over their religious life, including reinterpretations of Baptist theology in terms of their experience (for example, they placed an emphasis on the role of John the Baptist, sometimes at the expense of Jesus.   )
Thomas Burchell, a missionary in Montego Bay, returned from England following Christmas vacation. Many of the Baptist ministry expected that he would return with papers for emancipation from the king, William IV. They also thought that the King's men would enforce the order and discontent escalated among slaves when the Jamaican governor announced that no emancipation had been granted. 
Led by 'native' Baptist preacher, Samuel Sharpe, enslaved black workers demanded more freedom and a working wage of "half the going wage rate" they took an oath to stay away from work until their demands were met by the plantation owners. The enslaved laborers believed that the work stoppage could achieve their ends alone – a resort to force was only envisaged if violence was used against them.  Sharpe was the inspiration for the rebellion, and was nicknamed "Daddy" Sharpe. His military commanders were mainly literate slaves, like him, and they included Johnson, a carpenter called Campbell from York estate, a waggoner from Greenwich estate named Robert Gardner, Thomas Dove from Belvedere estate, John Tharp from Hazlelymph estate, and George Taylor, who, like Sharpe, was a deacon in Burchell's chapel. 
It became the largest slave uprising in the British West Indies, mobilizing as many as 60,000 of Jamaica's 300,000 slaves.   During the rebellion, fourteen whites were killed by armed slave battalions and 207 rebels were killed. 
The rebellion exploded on December 27, when slaves set fire to Kensington estate, in the hills above Montego Bay. Colonel William Grignon of the militia was an attorney who ran several estates, including one at Salt Spring, where a series of incidents in December were the sparks for the uprising. 
Grignon led the militia against the rebels at Belvedere estate, but he was forced to retreat, leaving the rebels in command of the rural areas of the parish of St James. 
On December 31, the colonial authorities instituted martial law.  Sir Willoughby Cotton, who commanded the British forces, then summoned the Jamaican Maroons of Accompong Town to help suppress the rebellion in the second week of January. However, when the Accompong Maroons attacked the rebels at Catadupa, they were forced to withdraw because the rebels were "too strong". 
The Accompong Maroons soon gained the upper hand however, and they defeated the rebels in one skirmish, killing one of Sharpe's deputies, Campbell, in the assault. When the army regulars were besieged by the rebels at Maroon Town, the Accompong Maroons relieved them, killing more rebels, and capturing scores of them, including another of Sharpe's deputies, Dehany. 
When the Windward Maroons from Charles Town, Jamaica and Moore Town answered the call of Cotton, the rebel cause was lost. These eastern Maroons killed and captured a number of other rebels, including another leader named Gillespie. One of the last leaders of the rebels, Gardner, surrendered when he heard the Charles Town Maroons had joined the fight against them. 
The rebellion was quickly suppressed by British forces.  The reaction of the Jamaican government and reprisals of the plantocracy were far more brutal.  Approximately 500 slaves were killed, with 207 killed outright during the revolt. After the rebellion, an estimated 310 to 340 slaves were killed through "various forms of judicial executions". At times, slaves were executed for quite minor offenses (one recorded execution was for the theft of a pig another, a cow).  An 1853 account by Henry Bleby described how the courts commonly executed three or four persons simultaneously bodies were piled up until the black people relegated to the workhouse carted the bodies away at night and buried them in mass graves outside town. 
After the rebellion, property damage was estimated in the Jamaican Assembly summary report in March 1832 at £1,154,589 (roughly £124,000,000 in 2021).Thousands of rebels had set fire to more than 100 properties, destroying over 40 sugar works and the houses of nearly 100 planters. 
The planters suspected many missionaries of having encouraged the rebellion. Some, such as William Knibb and Bleby, were arrested, tarred and feathered, but later released. Groups of white colonials destroyed chapels that housed black congregations. 
As a result of the Baptist War, hundreds of slaves ran away into the Cockpit Country in order to avoid being forced back into slavery. The Maroons were only successful in apprehending a small number of these runaway slaves. Many runaways remained free and at large when the British parliament passed the Act abolishing slavery in 1833. 
Historians argue that the brutality of the Jamaican plantocracy during the revolt accelerated the British political process of emancipating the slaves. When Burchell and Knibb described how badly they were treated by the colonial militias, the House of Commons expressed their outrage that white planters could have tarred and feathered white missionaries. Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 for initial measures to begin in 1834, followed by partial emancipation (outright for children six or under, six years apprenticeship for the rest) in 1834 and then unconditional emancipation of chattel slavery in 1838.  
America, Christmas in Colonial
The religious upheaval known as the Reformation divided sixteenthand seventeenth-century Europeans on many religious issues, including the celebration of Christian feast days. The European immigrants who settled in the thirteen American colonies brought these controversies with them. Among colonial Americans, attitudes towards Christmas depended largely on religious affiliation. In general, Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers refused to celebrate the holiday. In areas of the country settled primarily by people of these religious affiliations, Christmas withered. By contrast, those who belonged to the Anglican (or Episcopalian), Dutch Reformed, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic traditions generally approved of the holiday. Communities composed primarily of people from these denominations planted the seeds of Christmas in this country.
The First American Christmas
The first Christmas celebration in what was later to become the continental United States took place in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565 (for a list of entries treating American history and customs, see United States of America, Christmas in). Old documents inform us that Father Francisco Lopez de Mendoza Grajales presided over a Christmas service held at the Nombre de Dios Mission in that year. The Shrine of Nuestra Señora de la Leche now marks this location. The town of St. Augustine boasts of being the oldest settlement founded by Europeans in what is now the United States. Still, residents of Tallahassee, Florida, suspect that an even earlier Christmas celebration may have been held near the site of their town. In 1539 a party of Spanish colonists, led by explorer Hernando de Soto (c. 15001542), camped near the place where Tallahassee now stands. Since the Spaniards stayed from October 1539 to March of the following year, some Floridians speculate that they must have celebrated Christmas there.
The First Christmas in the English Colonies
In Jamestown, Virginia, a ragged band of Englishmen huddled together on Christmas morning in the year 1607. Although one hundred hopeful settlers had left England in order to found this, the first American colony, less than forty were still alive to celebrate their first Christmas in the New World. Their leader, Captain John Smith, was gone. He had left them to barter for food with the local Indians, and, according to legend, returned alive thanks only to the intervention of a young Indian woman named Pocahontas. Although the settlers had little food with which to rejoice, they still observed Christmas Day with an Anglican worship service.
Virginia and the South
In Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas the majority of early settlers were Anglicans of English descent. In the second half of the seventeenth century, as their way of life grew more secure, they began to reproduce the festive Christmas they had known in their homeland (see also Williamsburg,Virginia, Christmas in Colonial). They celebrated with feasting, drinking, dancing, card playing, horse racing, cock fighting, and other games. Although Anglican churches offered Christmas worship services, these apparently did not play a large role in colonial Christmas celebrations. Wealthy plantation owners who lived in large houses aspired to fill the Christmas season with lavish entertainments of all sorts. For many, this festive period lasted until Twelfth Night. By the eighteenth century these wealthy southerners studded their holiday season with balls, fox hunts, bountiful feasts, and openhanded hospitality. One year guests at a Christmas banquet hosted by a wealthy Virginia planter named George Washington, who later became the first president, dined sumptuously on the following dishes: turtle soup, oysters, crab, codfish, roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, venison, boiled mutton, suckling pig, smoked ham, roast turkey, several dishes of vegetables, biscuits, cornbread, various relishes, cakes, puddings, fruits, and pies. Wines, cordials, and a special holiday drink known as eggnog usually rounded out the plantation Christmas feast. Although wealthy parents might give a few presents to their children on Christmas or New Year's Day, this practice was not widespread. More common was the practice of making small gifts to the poor, to one's servants, or to one's slaves. America, Christmas in Colonial
The less well-off could not reproduce the splendor of a plantation Christmas, but they could still celebrate with good food and good cheer. In addition, southerners of all classes saluted Christmas morning by shooting off their guns and making all sorts of noise. Those who did not own muskets banged on pots and pans or lit fireworks. Slaves were usually given a small tip or gift and some leisure time at Christmas. Since they had to prepare the parties and feasts for everyone else, however, their workload increased in certain ways at this time of year.
Southern colonists transported a number of old English Christmas customs to the New World including Christmas carols, Yule logs, kissing under the mistletoe, and decking homes with greenery. Southern schoolboys of this era sometimes resorted to the Old World custom of barring out the schoolmaster in order to gain a few days off at this festive time of year.
The first bands of settlers to colonize New England were mostly made up of Puritans, members of a minority religious sect in England. They advocated a simplified style of worship and the elimination of many religious holidays, including Christmas. Although they came to America in search of religious freedom, once here, the Puritan settlers established rules and laws favoring their religion above all others, as was the custom in Europe at the time. In Plymouth colony, the first European settlement in New England, Puritan leaders frowned upon Christmas from the very beginning. In 1621, one year after their arrival from England, Governor William Bradford discovered young men playing ball games in the streets on Christmas Day. He sent them back to their work, remarking in his diary that while he may have permitted devout home observances, he had no intention of allowing open revelry in the streets. In 1659 Massachusetts Bay Colony made Christmas illegal. Any person found observing Christmas by feasting, refraining from work, or any other activity was to be fined five shillings. In 1681, however, pressure from English political authorities forced colonists to repeal this law. The anti-Christmas sentiment continued, though, and most people went on treating Christmas like any other workday. Many Puritan colonists resented the presence of the few Anglicans in their midst, especially if they were British officials. On Christmas Day in 1706 a Puritan gang menaced worshipers at the King's Chapel in Boston, breaking windows in protest against the Anglican worship service taking place inside.
The very fact that Puritan leaders passed a law against the holiday suggests that some New Englanders were tempted to make merry on that day. Historic documents record a few instances of seventeenth-century Christmas revelers and mummers being cold-shouldered by their more severe neighbors. The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a slight thawing in Puritan attitudes towards Christmas, as the New England colonies began to fill with people from a wider variety of religious backgrounds. Many still criticized drinking, gaming, flirting, feasting, and mumming as unholy acts of abandon that dishonored the Nativity of Christ, but some now accepted the idea of marking the day of Jesus'birth with religious devotions. Nevertheless, noted Puritan minister Cotton Mather (16631728) clearly warned his congregation against secular celebrations of the holiday in his Christmas Day sermon of 1712:
Can you in your conscience think that our Holy Saviour is honored by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling? . . . If you will yet go on and do Such Things, I forewarn you That the Burning Wrath of God will break forth among you [Christmas in Colonial andEarly America, 1996, 12].
In eighteenth-century New England, Christmas services could be found in Anglican, Dutch Reformed, Universalist, and other churches representing pro-Christmas denominations.
New York and Pennsylvania
New York and Pennsylvania hosted significant numbers of Dutch and German immigrants. Denominational differences divided many of these immigrants on the subject of Christmas. In general, the Mennonites, Brethren, and Amish rejected Christmas. The Lutherans, Reformed, and Moravians cherished the holiday and honored it with church services as well as folk celebrations (see also Lovefeast America, Christmas in Colonial
and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Christmas in). Like their English counterparts in the South, the pro-Christmas communities in New York and Pennsylvania ate and drank their way through the Christmas holiday. In addition, both the Dutch and the Germans brought a rich tradition of Christmas baking to this country, including the making of special Christmas cookies, such as gingerbread. In fact, the American English word "cookie" comes from the Dutch word koek, meaning "cake." This in turn gave rise to the term koekje, meaning "cookie" or "little cake."
German immigrants brought other Christmas customs with them as well. As early as the mid-eighteenth century Moravian communities in Pennsylvania were celebrating the day with Christmas pyramids. Other early German communities imported the beliefs and customs surrounding the German folk figures Christkindel and Knecht Ruprecht, whose gift-giving activities delighted children at Christmas time. Although the Germans probably also introduced the Christmas tree, no records of this custom can be found until the nineteenth century.
In addition to its large German population, Pennsylvania became home to many Scotch Irish and Quakers. Both the Scotch Irish, most of whom were Presbyterians, and the Quakers disapproved of Christmas celebrations in general. The Quakers adamantly opposed all raucous street revels, including those of German belsnickelers, mummers, and masqueraders of all kinds. In the nineteenth century, when Quakers dominated Philadelphia and Pennsylvania state government, they passed laws to prevent noisy merrymaking in the streets at Christmas time (see also America, Christmas in NineteenthCentury).
The German Christmas blended lively folk customs with devout religious observances. This combination eventually became typical of American Christmas celebrations. At least one researcher has concluded that increased immigration from the German-speaking countries in the second half of the eighteenth century profoundly influenced the American Christmas. The increasing number of Germans permitted their balanced approach to Christmas to spread among the wider population and so encouraged the festival to flourish in the United States.
The colonial American Christmas differed significantly from contemporary American Christmas celebrations. Many religious people completely ignored the day. Even after the founding of the United States no state recognized Christmas as a legal holiday. Those people who celebrated it anyway did so without Santa Claus, Christmas cards, Christmas trees, and elaborate Christmas morning gift exchanges. Instead, the most common ways to observe the holiday featured feasting, drinking, dancing, playing games, and engaging in various forms of public revelry. Although the colonies attracted people from many different countries, English, German, and Dutch settlers exercised the strongest influence on early American Christmas celebrations.
Barnett, James. The American Christmas. New York: Macmillan, 1954. Christmas in Colonial and Early America. Chicago: World Book, 1996. Kane, Harnett. The Southern Christmas Book. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, Mich.: Omnigraphics, 1998. Lizon, Karen Helene. Colonial American Holidays and Entertainments. New York: Franklin Watts, 1993. Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996. Restad, Penne. Christmas in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsylvania Folklore Society, 1959. Snyder, Phillip. December 25th. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1985. Young, Joanne B. Christmas in Williamsburg. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970. America, Christmas in Nineteenth-Century
How slaves celebrated Christmas in America
Solomon Northup was a free black man in New York who married the love of his life on Christmas Day in 1829. A dozen years later, he was kidnapped into slavery and sold to a Louisiana plantation, an occurrence at the heart of the recent movie 12 Years a Slave. As he soon likely discovered, Christmas marriage ceremonies served as a cultural connection between his experience in slavery and his life as a free man.
In films such as this that have become popular in recent months, we mainly see slaves depicted in their conflicts with their owners. Rarely do we see the culture and lives they made for themselves despite oppression.
Reflecting on slaves’ traditions at this time of year is a way for us to honor their strength and ingenuity, despite inhumane circumstances. Here is how our ancestors — through acts such as marriage — used Christmas as a time to fortify our community.
Christmas as a respite from hardship
Christmastime on southern antebellum plantations was the occasion that slaves looked forward to the most. Even while subjected to the evils of slavery and its horrors, blacks managed to find small pockets of joy in this holiday celebration. As former slave Charley Hurt told federal officials tasked to document his experiences, “Dat was one day on Massa’s place when all am happy and forgets dey am slaves.”
Based on a collection of slave narratives the government collected as part of the Federal Writer’s Project in the late 1930s, we know that Christmas was observed on nearly all such plantations, with black slaves and white slave owners often celebrating together. Black household servants and field hands were usually given a break from their daily labor lasting anywhere from two to seven days.
While some have contended the holiday spirit caused slaveowners to temporarily treat their slaves with some measure of dignity, the reality is the celebration was used to reinforce paternalism, encourage slave allegiance, and provide what Frederick Douglass described as a, “safety valve to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.”
In other words, Christmas was used to keep slaves passive and in check.
Christmas: A time of controlled plenty
Despite this, blacks found a way to make this time significant by strengthening communal bonds, reuniting families, and rejuvenating their bodies and spirits from the extremely brutal conditions of slavery.
On a typical plantation Christmas, slaves would awake and actually seek out whites because it was customary for all slaves to receive gifts. To get their presents, they played a game called Christmas Gift. When slaves first encountered whites on that morning, the first to shout “Christmas Gift!” would be the winner, to which the loser must give a gift. Of course, the slaves were always allowed to win to, because whites often refused to accept gifts from them. That would signal some measure of equality and disrupt the social order.
Later in the morning, many slave-owning families would gather all of the domestic servants and field hands together and pass out presents in a more formal manner. The children would receive candy or hand-me-down toys, and sometimes coins were thrown at them. The adults usually received gifts of necessity, such as clothes and shoes to replace their tattered garments. These gifts were how slave owners protected their investment, as proper clothing was better for a slave’s health and morale.
In many places, slaves that picked the most cotton, or had a child, were given special gifts as a reward for their increased productivity. These gift-giving rituals served as a reminder to the slaves that their owners were in total control and even their most basic needs were provided at the whim of whites.
The façade of cheerful white benevolence, however, would often crack under the temporary challenge of treating slaves like people instead of property. As the Louisiana plantation master Bennet Barrows wrote in his diary, “Getting tired of the holidays, Negros want too much.”
Breaking “normal” rules at Christmas
Christmas was also one of the few times of the year when slaves were allowed to eat a wealth of fresh meat, fruits, and baked goods. Their diet usually consisted of cornmeal and salted meat, so the holiday meal was a welcome change they eagerly anticipated.
Plus, slaves were usually permitted to congregate in the house only during holiday season. These large meals with blacks and whites eating in adjacent rooms were often followed by lots of music and dancing.
Additionally, slaves were provided with just about all the alcohol they could drink. It is widely thought this was done to keep them inebriated and, thus, incapable of organizing a revolt. Francis Fedric was an escaped slave who recounted how his master used to force his slaves to drink too much. And then he’d have them gather around, all of them extremely drunk, and tell them they obviously don’t know how to be responsible with their freedom, and that they were lucky to have him as a master to keep them from ruining themselves.
Slaves create their own traditions
Christmas was also used to ensure slaves accepted the version of Christianity their masters practiced. Religion was used as a tool to keep slaves complacent and to convey the notion that God approved of their condition. But in parts of the coastal South, many slaves broke away from the Christian tradition and engaged in festivities with roots from their West African heritage in a celebration called “John Kunering.”
The primary element of the John Kunering ceremony consisted of black men dressed in rags and animal skins, playing instruments, singing, dancing, and marching from home to home to perform for masters and overseers. Those who witnessed the show were to reward the men with money and alcohol.
This ritual has the same roots as New Orleans “second line” parades and is a precursor to the modern-day performances of black marching bands and the step routines of black fraternities and sororities.
Solidifying social bonds despite oppression
But the most significant observance during Christmas was allowing slaves to receive passes to visit their friends and family – husbands, wives, and children – that resided on other plantations. This sort of prolonged interaction, though infrequent, led to an integrated black community that extended far beyond individual plantations. This familial and social contact proved to be an important aspect of the sustenance that allowed blacks to survive slavery.
Christmastime was one of the few periods when “marriages” were possible and allowed (although not legally binding). As such, it became a celebration of more than just gifts and food, but a sort of renewal of the human bonds of unity that slavery attempted to strip from blacks. Many whites attended their slaves’ marriages, but some couldn’t stand the sight of people they owned under law pretending to be civilized.
Christmas on the plantation was a time of brief, if incomplete, relief from slavery for many blacks. But underneath the seemingly kind gestures from slaveowners were actions that actually served to strengthen the institution of slavery and maintain owners’ power over blacks. In spite of this, slaves managed to co-opt the holiday to renew their bonds to one another as a way of overcoming the dehumanization of society.
From their example, we see the truest illustration of the Christmas spirit. May it be alive and well with you as you gather, make merry, and revivify your familial and social bonds this holiday season.
Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III.
Who Were America’s Enslaved? A New Database Humanizes the Names Behind the Numbers
The night before Christmas in 1836, an enslaved man named Jim made final preparations for his escape. As his enslavers, the Roberts family of Charlotte County, Virginia, celebrated the holiday, Jim fled west to Kanawha County, where his wife’s enslaver, Joseph Friend, had recently moved. Two years had passed without Jim’s capture when Thomas Roberts published a runaway ad pledging $200 (around $5,600 today) for the 38- to 40-year-old’s return.
“Jim is … six feet or upwards high, tolerably spare made, dark complexion, has rather an unpleasant countenance,” wrote Roberts in the January 5, 1839, issue of the Richmond Enquirer. “[O]ne of his legs is smaller than the other, he limps a little as he walks—he is a good blacksmith, works with his left hand to the hammer.”
In his advertisement, Roberts admits that Jim may have obtained free papers, but beyond that, Jim’s fate, and that of his wife, is lost to history.
Fragments of stories like Jim’s—of lives lived under duress, in the framework of an inhumane system whose aftershocks continue to shape the United States—are scattered across archives, libraries, museums, historical societies, databases and countless other repositories, many of which remain uncatalogued and undigitized. All too often, scholars pick up loose threads like Jim’s, incomplete narratives that struggle to be sewn together despite the wealth of information available.
Enslaved: Peoples of the Historic Slave Trade, a newly launched digital database featuring 613,458 entries (and counting), seeks to streamline the research process by placing dozens of complex datasets in conversation with each other. If, for instance, a user searches for a woman whose transport to the Americas is documented in one database but whose later life is recorded in another, the portal can connect these details and synthesize them.
“We have these data sets, which have a lot of specific information taken in a particular way, [in] fragments,” says Daryle Williams, a historian at the University of Maryland and one of the project’s principal investigators. “. [If] you put enough fragments together and you put them together by name, by place, by chronology, you begin to have pieces of lives, which were lived in a whole way, even with the violence and the disruptions and the distortions of enslavement itself. We [can] begin then to construct or at least understand a narrative life.”
"I love that [the portal] really educates people on how to read the record," says Mary N. Elliott, a curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Enslaved.org)
Funded through a $1.5 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Enslaved.org—described by its creators as a “linked open data platform” featuring information on people, events and places involved in the transatlantic slave trade—marks the culmination of almost ten years of work by Williams and fellow principal investigators Walter Hawthorne, a historian at Michigan State University, and Dean Rehberger, director of Michigan State’s Matrix Center for Digital Humanities & Social Sciences.
Originally, the team conceived Enslaved.org as a space to simply house these different datasets, from baptismal records to runaway ads, ship manifests, bills of sale and emancipation documents. But, as Rehberger explains, “It became a project about how we can get datasets to interact with one another so that you can draw broader conclusions about slavery. … We’re going in there and grabbing all that data and trying to make sense of it, not just give [users] a whole long list of things.”
The project’s first phase launched earlier this month with searchable data from seven partner portals, including Slave Voyages, the Louisiana Slave Database and Legacies of British Slave-Ownership. Another 30 databases will be added over the next year, and the team expects the site to continue to grow for years to come. Museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, genealogy groups and individuals alike are encouraged to submit relevant materials for review and potential inclusion.
To fulfill the “important obligation” of involving researchers of all types and education levels, the scholars made their platform “as familiar and unintimidating as possible,” according to Williams. Users who arrive without specific research goals in mind can explore records grouped by categories as ethnicity or age, browse 75 biographies of both prominent enslaved and free people and lesser-known ones, and visualize trends using a customizable dashboard. Researchers, amateur genealogists and curious members of the public, meanwhile, can use Enslaved.org to trace family histories, download peer-reviewed datasets, and craft narratives about some of the 12.5 million enslaved Africans transported to the New World between the 16th and 19th centuries.
At its core, says Rehberger, Enslaved.org is a “discovery tool. We want you to be able to find all these different records that have traditionally been out in these silos, and bring them together in the hope that people can then reconstruct what’s there.”
Enslaved individuals pose in front of a wooden house on William F. Gaines' Hanover County, Virginia, plantation in 1862. (Public domain via Library of Congress)
Slavery FAQs- Work
Length of work days and holidays varied for enslaved people at Monticello. There are no direct references to the work day for enslaved farm laborers at Monticello. As was true throughout the south, they probably worked from dawn to dusk, with shorter or longer days according to the season. The work day of enslaved house servants was unpredictable, as they were "on call." Certain tradesmen doing work that could be measured were "tasked." Each day a nailer might have to make ten pounds of tenpenny nails. A cooper had to finish four flour barrels. Wagoners had to transport a certain number of logs. Weavers had to produce seven and a half yards of linen shirting in summer. There is evidence that Jefferson designed tasks to fill the daylight hours. In his chart of work for the spinners and weavers, their task grows with the light from January to June so that their winter work day was nine hours long, while in high summer it lasted fourteen hours.
Enslaved workers at Monticello could pursue their own activities in the evenings, on Sundays, and on some holidays. The usual holidays on slave plantations in Virginia were Christmas, Easter, and Whitsun. There are numerous references to the Christmas holiday (usually several days long) in Jefferson's records.
Was child labor used at Monticello?
Yes, enslaved children were forced to labor on this plantation. Boys and girls under ten assisted in the care of the very young enslaved children or worked in and around the main house. From the age of ten, they were assigned to tasks&mdashin the fields, in the Nailery and Textile Workshop, or in the house. In 1796, for instance, eight of the fourteen nailmakers were aged ten to twelve. At the age of sixteen, enslaved boys and girls were considered full-fledged workers, tasked as farm laborers or forced into trades.
Did Jefferson pay any of his enslaved laborers?
Some enslaved people received small amounts of money, but that was the exception not the rule. The vast majority of labor was unpaid.
The only enslaved person at Monticello who received something approximating a wage was George Granger, Sr., who was paid $65 a year (about half the wage of a white overseer) when he served as Monticello overseer. Jefferson paid enslaved persons for work outside their normal work day ("in their own time") and for performing unusually difficult or unpleasant tasks like cleaning the chimneys or the privies. Enslaved people working in important positions&mdashsuch as butler Burwell Colbert and woodworker John Hemmings&mdashreceived annual "gratuities" of $15 or $20. Jefferson gave men in management positions&mdashGeorge Granger, Jr., in the nailery and Joseph Fossett in the blacksmith shop&mdasha percentage of the profits of their operations.
While in France, New York, and Philadelphia, Jefferson paid James Hemings a wage for being a chef ,valet, and butler for his household. Although Hemings was enslaved by Jefferson at the time, slavery was illegal in France and Jefferson was required to pay Hemings.
The amount of money was drastically less than what a white worker would have received for the same labor, but Jefferson paid some skilled workmen (coopers and charcoalburners) special premiums for productivity and efficiency. Young workers, like the boys in the Nailery, were encouraged to be more industrious by non-financial incentives, such as special clothing and meat rations.
Some enslaved people at Monticello, primarily members of the Hemings family, were given permission to hire themselves out and keep their wages.