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.
In general, most slaves ate better during the Christmas holiday than they would normally partake. Some of the cuisine included choice cuts of ham; roast turkey, chicken or goose, various salad greens and, as a side dish, a treat called ashcakes which were composed of boiled cornmeal sweetened with molasses and wrapped in cabbage to bake. Because livestock was traditionally butchered during the Christmas season, slaves would receive pig’s feet, tails and and ears; ham hocks, tongue, tripe, brains, ox tails, etc. and would create their own recipes in effectively reintroducing European cuisine with their particular West African spin. A favorite dish enjoyed was Hoppin’ John which combined black-eye peas, onions, ham hock and long grain rice sprinkled with Cheddar cheese.
Often during the holiday season, the master or mistress would provide slaves with homemade wine or in some cases whiskey which occasionally resulted in drunkenness. Slaves were not permitted to partake of spirits at any other time of the year, and it was not uncommon for a few individuals to have a hangover the next morning after an excess of revelry. Because the effects of alcohol were something unknown to many slaves, historians of the era have documented that some slave owners would deliberately encourage a day of heavy drinking among the men and then awaken them very early the next morning, flog them and order extra work for no reason than obeying their master’s commands the previous day.
Why the master encouraged drunkenness
Frederick Douglass reportedly believed that many slave owners promoted this behavior to discourage the pursuit of freedom because the individual slave may have believed this his inebriation did not merit trust and character. Apparently, with business still in mind, the slave owner knew that the effects of alcohol would encourage sloth and laziness. This idea reportedly made the slave less encouraged to run away during the break. Francis Fredric was an escaped slave who recounted how his master force his slaves to drink too much by having them “gather ‘round—all of them very 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.”
Along with the traditions of the Christmas holiday in Western culture, slaves had dancing and singing in the slave quarters. On occasion, some slave owners would walk about a quarter-mile to the slave cabins and watch the celebrations and even observe parents present their children with small handmade tokens. One particular celebration was Jonkonnu where slaves would host a Christmas masquerade. It was basically a traveling show in which slaves would don makeshift costumes and go from house to house to perform for gifts and, if they were lucky, a few coins from other slaves.
Music was always a part of the Christmas celebration, and slaves would sing and play various instruments (often homemade) such as drums, flutes, pipes, banjos and fiddles. Among the musical selections favored by slaves (later referred to as Negro spirituals) were “Mary Had A Baby,” “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,” “Sister Mary Had-a But One Child” and “Behold That Star.”
‘Christmas gif!’ (sic)
On Christmas day, custom permitted slaves to ask for a small gift from any White people they saw. If they could utter the phrase “Christmas gif!” (sic) before the White person could see or speak to them, the latter was obliged to offer coins, sweets and other small gifts. In this instance, children would often hide and lie in wait for those with the means to provide presents and “capture” them and playfully refuse to release their captive until they received a gift in return.
The master, too, provided a Christmas gift to his slaves, usually in the form of clothing, shoes, hats or tools that they otherwise had to provide during the year. History reveals that even while subjected to the evils of slavery and its horrors, Blacks managed to find small pockets of joy at Christmas. As former slave Charley Hurt told officials with the Federal Writer’s Project in the early 1930s tasked to document his experiences: “Dat was some day on Massa’s place when all am happy and forgets dey am slaves” (sic).
Slaves were very wise during the holiday season and many recognized this as a time to escape their bondage. Harriet Tubman helped her brothers escape at Christmas. Their master intended to sell them after the holiday but was delayed because of the festivities. The brothers were expected to spend the day with their elderly mother but instead 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. Evidence such as this confirms that Christmas could represent for slaves not only physical freedom, but a specific “spiritual” freedom as well as a hope for better days ahead.