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“American slaves experienced the Christmas holidays in many different ways. Joy, hope, and celebration were naturally a part of the season for many. For other slaves, these holidays conjured up visions of freedom and even the opportunity to bring about that freedom. Still others saw it as yet another burden to be endured.”
The prosperity and relaxed discipline associated with Christmas often enabled slaves to interact in ways that they could not during the rest of the year. They customarily received material goods from their masters…for this reason, among others, slaves frequently married during the Christmas season.
Christmas provided slaves with the latitude and prosperity that made a formal wedding possible.
On the plantation, the transfer of Christmas gifts from master to slave was often accompanied by a curious ritual. On Christmas day, “it was always customary in those days to catch peoples Christmas gifts and they would give you something.” Slaves and children would lie in wait for those with the means to provide presents and capture them, crying ‘Christmas gift’ and refusing to release their prisoners until they received a gift in return. This ironic annual inversion of power occasionally allowed slaves to acquire real power. Henry, a slave whose tragic life and death is recounted in Martha Griffith Browne’s Autobiography of a Female Slave, saved “Christmas gifts in money” to buy his freedom.
Some slaves used the passes to explain their presence on the road and delay the discovery of their escape through their masters’ expectation that they would soon return from their “family visit.” Recalling his life as a slave, Jermain Loguen plotted a Christmas escape, stockpiling supplies and waiting for travel passes, knowing the cover of the holidays was essential for success: “Lord speed the day!–freedom begins with the holidays!”
Harriet Tubman helped her brothers escape at Christmas. Their master intended to sell them after Christmas but was delayed by the holiday. The brothers were expected to spend the day with their elderly mother but met Tubman in secret. She helped them travel north, gaining a head start on the master who did not discover their disappearance until the end of the holidays. Likewise, William and Ellen Crafts escaped together at Christmastime. They took advantage of passes that were clearly meant for temporary use. Ellen obtained a pass from her mistress, allowing her to be away for a few days.
Christmas could represent not only physical freedom, but spiritual freedom, as well as the hope for better things to come.
Recalling the impact of Christmas a former slave would later recount that she found little positive value in the slaveholder’s version of Christmas—equating it with “all sorts of culinary preparations” and extensive house cleaning rituals… Christmas symbolized the birth of the very hope she used to survive her captivity.
Not all enslaved African Americans viewed the holidays as a time of celebration and hope. Rather, Christmas served only to highlight their lack of freedom. As a young boy, Louis Hughes was bought in December and introduced to his new household on Christmas Eve “as a Christmas gift to the madam.” Frederick Douglass described the period of respite that was granted to slaves every year between Christmas and New Year’s Day as a psychological tool of the oppressor.
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.
Slaves who worked as household servants often found their workload increased at Christmas time. Some slave owners 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.
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.
Many slave-owners gave gifts to their slaves at Christmas time. Typical gifts included hats, hair ribbons, tobacco, sugar, bandanas, collars, or coins. 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.
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 slaves may have devoted time to a more dangerous holiday hobby: studying.
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.
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. 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.
The above information was from http://usslave.blogspot.com/2012/12/slaves-christmas.html.