Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christmas on the Plantation


Holidays today are a far cry from those of the 19th Century. Christmas occurs in three of my novels, and I spent some time trying to find out how it was celebrated on Southern plantations. There's no simple answer. Plantations were like small settlements governed by the owners, and they determined the Christmas customs. In most cases, the slaves were given days off from labor, oftentimes three.

The whites were big on family get-togethers. Since travel was by stagecoach, steamer, or train, when visitors came they often stayed as much as a week or longer. The slaves were allowed passes to leave the plantation to visit family members, as long as it wasn’t too far. They had to walk, which they did barefoot with their shoes laced over their shoulders to keep them from getting dirty.

The slaves dressed in their Sunday best, and many women wore something in red, either sashes or head rags or ribbons. They partied in the yard till dawn with fiddling, singing, and dancing, sometimes described as “tearing down.” Solomon Northup wrote, “Their legs flew like drum-sticks.” Their dancing differed decidedly from the orderly turns and loops of the cotillions danced by the whites.
Slaves brought out their best dresses for Christmas.
Feasting was eagerly anticipated, and a common food was barbecue, which served both master and slave but not from the same rack. Whether hogs, sheep, or oxen, the slaves butchered the animals. They dug a ditch and filled it with wood, and when it burned down to fiery coals, they put the carcass on a rack to simmer, usually all night.

Christmas morning, the slaves stood in the yard and sang until the whites came outside and wished them a merry Christmas. The owners might give them gifts such as extra rations (white flour, coffee, and sugar were prized), or tobacco, an orange, apple, or cake. Whites gave each other things such as Wistar cards, a prayer book, handkerchief with name, or note paper and envelopes (paper was in short supply).

Bishop Henry B. Whipple (1822-1901) wrote of “the jollity and mirth of the black population during Christmas holidays. Never have I seen any class of people who appeared to enjoy more than do these negroes.” This might sound like great fun, until you remember the smoke-filled cabins with no window panes, dirt floors, inflammatory fevers, infernal itches, pustules, threadbare clothes, wood shoes, and feces as common as acorns on the ground. It goes without saying that the blacks with lost family members due to the auction block must have felt a special heartache at Christmas. Sometimes those are the very people who laugh the loudest and play the hardest.

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