Friday, December 16, 2022 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

During the era of legal slavery in the United States, most people living in bondage enjoyed a brief respite at Christmas. Their holidays often included celebratory meals, music, and dancing, sometimes in company with their White neighbors. This seasonal liberty also generated great anxiety, however: Slaveowners dreaded Yuletide acts of resistance against their authority, while enslaved people feared violent rebukes of their festive joy. Conversations about the history of Christmas in the South benefit from an honest appraisal of the holiday’s troubled past.

Most Americans think of Christmas as a joyous time of the year, but the modern holiday is fraught with caveats. Not everyone celebrates the occasion, for example, and there is no singular mode of commemoration. At its historical root, Christmas is a religious holiday created by adherents to the Christian faith. It became increasingly secularized during the capitalist expansion of the late nineteenth century, however, leading to the broad commercialization of Christmas in the twentieth century. Many non-Christians and non-religious people celebrate the holiday now, and retailers around the world draw from a deep cache of Christmas “traditions” (real and imagined) to promote their commercial endeavors.

 

 

During the twentieth century, a number of historic plantations and house museums across the Southern States advertised Christmas-themed events and decorations to attract visitors. Such promotions invited guests to witness and/or participate in genteel traditions rooted in an amorphous, idealized past. Older residents of Charleston County will no doubt recall such events at local venues some decades ago. In more recent years, however, Christmas-themed events at historic sites across the South have almost entirely disappeared, or at least transformed significantly. Why? Because such events generally presented an incomplete and misleading historical picture that minimized or ignored the experiences of the enslaved participants.

Although it is difficult to draw generalizations about the Christmas experiences of millions of enslaved Americans over multiple generations, they certainly contrasted with those enjoyed by their free neighbors, White and Black. There was no blanket uniformity of holiday practices across the Southern slaveholding states, but there was a large measure of similarity and continuity within that broad landscape. In his recent book, Yuletide in Dixie (University of Virginia Press, 2019), historian Robert E. May provides a robust investigation of Christmas traditions in the slaveholding South—before, during, and after the American Civil War. Professor May’s book identifies several common themes and practices across the Old South, including the domains of both rural plantations and urban communities. To connect this sprawling topic to the Palmetto State, let’s briefly explore a few of the most prominent themes.

 

Rest and Relaxation

Numerous documentary sources from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries confirm that most enslaved Americans enjoyed a brief respite from hard labor during the Christmas season. The duration of their holiday varied greatly from region to region and among individual plantations. Some slaveowners allowed their chattel servants a day of rest, while others suspended the normal routine of work for the entire week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. A three-day holiday seems to have been the standard across South Carolina, commencing on December 24th and concluding on the evening of the 26th.[1]

This brief holiday respite was not entirely free of obligations, however. Across the American South, laborers enslaved and free were still obliged to perform a number of routine chores at Christmas. Farm animals had to be fed and tended, for example; fresh water had to be drawn from wells and toted indoors; ashes collected from fireplaces and discarded; chamber pots emptied; firewood stacked and fires stoked; coal shoveled; animals butchered; victuals prepared; meals served; babies nursed, and so on. Only the wealthiest people enjoyed a holiday of complete leisure.

In most parts of the Old South (South Carolina included), enslaved people who worked without pay during the year could earn cash at Christmas. While their normal duties were suspended, they generally received wages for extra work during their holiday “free time.” This voluntary practice functioned both as a seasonal reward to the industrious and as a measure of control. Those inclined to work diligently for cash during the Christmas holiday were less likely to abuse the temporary relaxation of the normal rules.

The relaxation of normal protocol at Christmas also allowed many enslaved people to travel beyond their plantation or household. After gaining a written ticket from their owner, an enslaved person might walk, ride, or paddle to visit a family member residing on a nearby plantation or in a neighboring community. For some living in bondage, a brief Christmas reunion was the only opportunity of the year to maintain family ties across the divisive landscape of slavery.

 

Celebration

During their three-day Christmas respite, many enslaved people in South Carolina engaged in festivities that included music, dancing, communal meals, and the receipt of gifts.
The details of such events varied widely, of course, from plantation to plantation in the country and from house to house in urban centers. This merriment coincided with religious celebrations of the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, but their mirth did not necessarily flow from spiritual fervor. Before and after the widespread Christianization of African captives in the American South, their Christmas festivities celebrated survival and fellowship in the face of great adversity.

Not everyone viewed such festivities in a positive light, however. Some reports dating from the eighteenth century describe holiday celebrations among the enslaved population as riotous disruptions. Presbyterian minister Alexander Hewatt, for example, worked in Charleston during the 1760s and 1770s and published a robust history of South Carolina after his return to Britain. “Sundays and holidays are indeed allowed [to] the negroes in Carolina, the former cannot consistent with the laws be denied them; the latter, as they are commonly spent[,] are nuisances to the province. Holidays there are days of idleness, riot, wantonness and excess; in which the slaves assemble together in alarming crowds, for the purposes of dancing, feasting and merriment.”[2]

As anti-slavery sentiment grew stronger in the Northern states during the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Southern defenders of the institution began describing boisterous Christmas festivities as an example of slavery’s benign nature. To this end, many slaveowners transformed mundane transactions into spectacles choreographed to highlight their paternalistic generosity. Fresh meat, for example, was not part of the regular diet afforded to enslaved people, although their meagre rations might include salt-cured meat and fish during the year. At Christmas, however, plantation owners across the South provided cattle or hogs for enslaved people to butcher and prepare for their communal meals.

Similarly, enslaved people generally received one suit of clothing each year. On many plantations, the annual distribution of new clothes and shoes became a solemn Christmas ceremony designed to underscore the dependence of the enslaved people on their owner’s bounty.[3] In his 1852 holiday novel The Golden Christmas, for example, William Gilmore Simms described holiday activities on a fictional plantation in the South Carolina Lowcountry. After distributing presents to his extended family around a Christmas tree, the plantation owner dressed as Father Christmas and visited the cabins of the enslaved people to distribute simple gifts. This act, said the narrator, demonstrated to a Northern visitor “that inevitable charity which characterizes the institution of Southern slavery.”[4]

South Carolina lawyer and slaveowner Richard Yeadon wrote a brief defense of slavery in 1843 that includes a useful reference to Christmas traditions in the Palmetto State. By providing a general overview of what he called “the practical working of the system” in South Carolina and “every where to the south of us where slavery exists,” Yeadon sought to highlight the perceived positive aspects of the institution. His description of Christmas joy contrasts with the humble “privileges” afforded to the enslaved people during the rest of the year.

“We allow our adult slaves or laborers a peck of corn or a bushel of sweet potatoes, each, per week, and each child under a certain age, half the quantity—giving them salt and meat, or salt fish occasionally. . . . In addition to all this, each slave is allowed a portion of ground to till for his own use and profit, on which he cultivates vegetables, Indian corn, rice, potatoes, and ground nuts [peanuts], &c., one or more, as he may choose; with the privilege also of raising poultry, and selling them and their eggs for his own benefit. The game of the woods, and the fish of the river, or pond, are theirs also. . . . Never, too, was there a more musical, dance-loving, merry making people; their Christmas sports, at which season they have holydays, or saturnalia, of three days’ duration, shew [sic] them, as indeed does their whole course of existence, to enjoy animal life to the highest possible degree, and to stand in no need of that devilish sympathy of the abolitionists, which would sow discontent, strife and misery, in their now happy and peaceful, if not Eden-like lot.”[5]

Enslaved people in South Carolina might have appeared happy at Christmas, especially in the presence of those who kept them in bondage, but they could scarcely forget the daily threats of corporal punishment and family separation that abridged their liberty. Their holiday jubilation masked a general longing for freedom and prosperity that festered during the rest of their days.[6]

 

Resistance

The temporary relaxation of normal rules at Christmas provided some enslaved people across the South with the opportunity to flee. Browsing through the newspapers of eighteenth and nineteenth century South Carolina, I’ve seen dozens of notices offering rewards for the capture of enslaved men and women who ran away from their owners during the Christmas holiday. Rarely do we know the specific motivations that inspired these flights or the objectives they sought to achieve. Perhaps someone was denied permission to visit a loved one on a nearby plantation and they were determined to make the temporary journey one way or another. Perhaps a spouse had been sold and carried away, leading a husband or wife to seek a permanent reunion during the customary holiday recess. Perhaps, like a young man named John Andrew Jackson, they were simply determined to escape the pain and injustice of slavery and find freedom elsewhere.

Jackson’s antebellum story provides a valuable example of resistance during the holiday season. He escaped from a cotton plantation in Sumter District, South Carolina, in 1846 and later wrote about his bold adventure in brief autobiography. His preparations commenced in early December. After trading some fowl that he had raised for a pony at a neighboring plantation, he kept the animal hidden in the woods nearby. Jackson had often accompanied his owner to Charleston as a cattle drover and was familiar with the route to the port city. After he bid a final farewell to his mother and father on the morning of Christmas Eve, he set out from the plantation on his pony and traveled along the public roads. He met a number of white folks along the way, each of whom stopped him and asked how far he was going on his own. He always answered, “to the next plantation,” and they let him continue, but he did not deviate from his journey. That evening at sundown he stopped at a plantation and lodged with the resident enslaved population, who assumed Jackson had leave from his owner to travel during the customary holiday. At a crossing over the Santee River on Christmas day, he paid twenty cents to an enslaved ferryman who pocketed the money and asked no questions. Stopping to rest at a roadside hotel later that evening, a white man recognized Jackson from previous visits with his master. The enslaved man repeated his story that he was merely traveling to a nearby plantation for his Christmas holiday, and all was well. He rode into Charleston on the evening of December 26th and met other enslaved men who agreed to help him find lodging and work. “It is the custom there,” recalled Jackson, “for the masters to send their slaves out in the morning to earn as much money as they can, how they like. So I joined a gang of negroes working on the wharfs [sic], and received a dollar-and-a-quarter per day, without arousing any suspicion.” Several days later, Jackson visited a vessel along East Bay Street preparing to depart for Boston. The cook, a free man of color, reluctantly agreed to hide him below deck, and Jackson became a free citizen of Massachusetts a few days later.[7]

 

Anxiety

The relative freedom of the brief Christmas holiday also engendered anxiety on both sides of the color line. In the aftermath of the bloody Stono Rebellion of September 1739, for example, slaveowners across the South Carolina Lowcountry made a great show of force during the subsequent Christmas to suppress any renewed violence during the customary season of relaxation.[8] A similar spectacle occurred in the winter of 1765. In mid-December, slaveowner Isaac Huger in Charleston informed Lieutenant Governor William Bull that “his wife had from the balcony of his house overheard a discourse between two Negroes in which they hinted a design of the Negroes to make a general insurrection & massacre of the White people on the night proceed[in]g Christmas day.” After hearing a similar report from Johns Island, the Lieutenant Governor mobilized the White militia in urban Charleston and across the Lowcountry to patrol day and night for the final two weeks of the year.[9]

Bull informed British officials in London that he had “rec[eiv]ed intimation that some plots are forming & some attempts of insurrection to be made during these holydays [sic], at which time slaves are allowed some days of festivity & exemption from labour.” The Lieutenant Governor had taken “proper measures to prevent the execution of such designs by giving necessary directions to the militia & patrols to be alert on their duty on that season which I hope will either discourage or suppress their attempt.” “This place has been in an uproar for 12 days past,” wrote a Charlestonian to a friend in Boston in late December 1765, “in consequence of a report which prevailed, that the Negroes had agreed to begin a general insurrection throughout the province, and a general massacre was to have began [sic] on Christmas eve.” The paramilitary forces apprehended and interrogated several enslaved men, which inspired the local correspondent to remark “in a little time I expect hanging, gibbeting, burning and whipping without end.”

The Christmas panic of 1765 passed without incident, however, as William Bull reported in a letter to the British government in late January 1766. “The vigorous execution of our militia & patrol laws for 14 days before and after Christmas Day prevented the festivity and assembling of Negroes usual at that time, and disconcerted their schemes.” In reality, the scare proved a false alarm. Prominent slaveowner Henry Laurens informed a friend that “there was little or no cause for all that bustle.” In the midst of the Stamp Act Crisis of late 1765, said Laurens, “some Negroes had mimick’d their betters in crying out ‘Liberty.’” Such expressions caused a panic among slaveowners and precipitated a cascade of consequences. In the end, Laurens tell us, “the whole [affair] seems to have terminated in the banishment of one fellow, not because he was guilty or [the] instigator of insurrection, but because some of his judges said that in the general course of his life he had been a sad dog, & perhaps that it was necessary to save appearances.”[10]

Memories of the Christmas scare of 1765 dampened the holiday cheer of Charlestonians for years to come. In his 1779 history of South Carolina, Alexander Hewatt noted the potential danger of allowing enslaved people a modicum of freedom and joy during the holidays: “At such seasons the inhabitants have the greatest reason to dread mischief from them; when let loose from their usual employments, they have fair opportunities of hatching plots and conspiracies, and of executing them with greater facility, from the intemperance of their owners and overseers.”[11]

In the years after the American Revolution, the City Council of newly-incorporated Charleston made a Christmas habit of mobilizing the urban militia to patrol the streets during daylight hours to augment the traditional nocturnal patrols performed by the City Guard. By 1796, city leaders required the expanding municipal police force to shoulder the entirety of this Christmas burden, mounting extra paramilitary guards throughout urban Charleston, around the clock, on Christmas and the three subsequent days. This practice continued well into the nineteenth century, demonstrating that anxiety over holiday liberties persisted until the demise of slavery in 1865.[12]

 

Conclusion

Anyone browsing the Internet or perusing Robert May’s book, Yuletide in Dixie, can find numerous other stories about Christmas tragedies and holiday anxiety across the American South during the era of slavery.[13] The underlying point of all this painful evidence remains the same, however. For the people of African descent living in bondage on rural plantations or in urban households, Christmas was a season of both joy and fear. They might have been thankful for the miracle of life and family, but the law of the land and the watchful eye of White authorities always constrained their happiness.

Most twentieth-century celebrations of “plantation Christmas,” in Charleston County and across the South, depicted a genteel and luxurious holiday conjured through a romanticized retrospective interpretation of the “Old South.” Such events either minimized or ignored the contrasting experiences endured by the enslaved people who once dominated the plantation landscape. The decline of glamorous “plantation Christmas” events in the twenty-first century is not an example of re-writing history, as some commentors might argue. Rather, this change reflects an effort to expand the historical narrative by including a broader range of bona fide facts that illuminate different perspectives of the same topic, thus rendering a more inclusive story.[14]

Every life has a story, and every community has a history. If you’re gathering with friends and family during the holiday season, I encourage you to share a few stories and listen to those of others. Conversations about the past empower the future of our human time machine.

 

 

[1] Formerly enslaved South Carolinian I. E. Lowery recalled that Christmas was a three-day event during his childhood in bondage, beginning on Christmas Eve; see Susanna Ashton and Langston Culler, eds., “Life on the Old Plantation in Ante-Bellum Days, or a Story Based on Facts by the Reverend I. E. Lowery,” in Susanna Ashton, ed., I Belong to South Carolina: South Carolina Slave Narratives (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010), 198–99.

[2] Alexander Hewatt, An Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of the Colonies South Carolina and Georgia, volume 2 (London: Alexander Donaldson, 1779), 103. See also the comments about the restraint of holiday celebrations on eighteenth-century Edisto Island published by David Ramsay, The History of South Carolina, volume 2, (Charleston, S.C.: David Longworth, 1809), 280.

[3] For a South Carolina example of these phenomena, see the narrative of I. E. Lowery in I Belong to South Carolina, 198–200.

[4] See Episode No. 94, “The Golden Christmas of 1852” (https://www.ccpl.org/charleston-time-machine/golden-christmas-1852).

[5] Charleston Courier, 25 January 1843, page 2, “Correspondence on the Subject of Slavery.”

[6] Robert E. May makes a similar conclusion in the first chapter of Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019).

[7] Susanna Ashton and Deanna L. Panetta, eds., “The Experience of a Slave in South Carolina, by John Andrew Jackson (1862),” in Susanna Ashton, ed., I Belong to South Carolina: South Carolina Slave Narratives (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010),

[8] Darold D. Wax, “‘The Great Risque We Run’: The Aftermath of Slave Rebellion at Stono, South Carolina, 1739–1745,” The Journal of Negro History 67 (Summer 1982): 138, 142.

[9] South Carolina Department of Archives and History, Journal of His Majesty’s Council for South Carolina No. 32, pages 680–81 (17 December 1765).

[10] Documents related to Christmas panic of 1765–66 are found in Timothy James Lockley, ed., Maroon Communities in South Carolina: A Documentary Record (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 24–31.

[11] Hewatt, An Historical Account, 2: 103.

[12] See the City Guard ordinance of 1796 in Alexander Edwards, ed., Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, In the State of South Carolina, Passed since the Incorporation of the City (Charleston, S.C.: W. P. Young, 1802), 144; and the revised guard ordinance of 1806, section 14, in Alexander Edwards, ed., Ordinances of the City Council of Charleston, Passed between the 24th of September 1804, and the 1st Day of September 1807 (Charleston, S.C.: W. P. Young, 1807), 389.

[13] See, for example, the University of North Carolina website, Documenting the American South: “The Slave Experience of the Holidays.”

[14] See chapter seven of May, Yuletide in Dixie.

 

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