Slaves recognized Christmas as time of joy and freedom
How they celebrated the gift of Christ
Merdies Hayes Editor In Chief | 12/21/2018, midnight
Christ is a nig*er, beaten and Black:
Oh, bare your back!
Mary is His mother:
Mammy of the South,
Silence your mouth.
God is His father:
White master above
Grant Him your love.
Most holy bastard
Of the bleeding mouth,
On the cross
Of the South.”
—-“Christ in Alabama,” Langston Hughes, 1931
While Langston Hughes’ 20th Century lament of the folly of racial subjugation may turn heads today as much as it did during the Jim Crow era, Christmas celebrations in Black households have always held special meaning, even if the stockings aren’t as filled and many presents may not adorn the tree. Hughes is speaking of the challenge African Americans have had to undertake over the centuries in surviving their once dismal plight yet beckoning for spiritual delivery.
Slaves celebrated Christmas with the same joy and fulfillment as do modern African Americans. They recognized the holy day as the birth of the Savior of Man who for 400 years has been hailed by the Black community as the hallmark of love and steadfast guide to deliverance from oppression.
Cherishing a day of joy
The vast majority of slaves belonged to White millionaires. While those in bondage were poor and shared only a small fraction of the lavish festivities of their masters, they nonetheless cherished the day not simply for revelry and feast, but for more personal reasons—namely recognition of and adherence to the promise of Christ.
Some—but not most—slave owners granted their property with the day off with the more altruistic among them providing food in the form of nicer cuts of meat which was rarely witnessed let alone consumed during the rest of the year. Depending on the personality and/or “good will” of the master, some slaves were allowed to briefly visit (via permit) relatives and friends on nearby plantations. Most slaves, however, rarely ventured from their dwellings and those who worked in the “Big House” were sometimes provided with a yule log to burn in the main fireplace. In this instance, since the slave’s holiday generally lasted as long as the log would burn, naturally they would try to select a log that would appear to be slow-burning. This way, the holiday could possibly last into the next day.
Though it was a season of festive relaxation, that was not the case at all for slaves. Most White families hosted elaborate Christmas dinners and parties, therefore the household slaves had a significantly increased workload. Because the master could always cancel their holiday, slaves could not count on a day off at Christmas. Some slave owners would withhold the privilege of celebrating Christmas from slaves who had displeased them during the year.
Quilting bees and Hoppin’ John
Many plantation slaves spent the holiday by taking part in rituals descended from their ancestry in Africa, even though Christianity had not been introduced to them. Some slaves took advantage of the day off to hold quilting bees, with particular fondness of the color red. Other crafts wee also made and traded at this time. And in a nod toward the precepts of Christ, some slaves spent the day pursuing an education in the form of literacy—a dicey practice if the master became aware because practically all of the slave-holding states prohibited education of slaves.