There are short stories, memoirs and novels written by White Southerners after the Civil War that tend to justify slavery. Some of these novels have made slave Christmases sound like beautiful times, writing about how enslaved men and women sang, danced and sat feasting on special meals during Christmas holidays, just as their owners did.
Some of these memoirs state that enslaved people wore their best clothes during Christmas and even played holiday games with their owners. But in reality, Christmas was never really a wonderful time of the year for enslaved people as these memoirs by White Southerners would want people to think.
It is true that many enslaved people got some time off from work during Christmas. The season becomes their longest break of the year, a break between the end of the harvest season and the start of preparation for the following year of production. They could travel to see their family or get married or partake in certain activities that they didn’t get to do at other times of the year.
“This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased,” abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in his 20s, wrote. “Those of us who had families at a distance were generally allowed to spend the whole six days [between Christmas and New Year’s Day] in their society.”
Some enslaved men and women also received gifts from their owners — clothing, shoes or money — and ate special meals that they never tasted at other times of the year. But not all enslaved people got the above privileges, and with those who had these privileges, their owners could take back those privileges at any time. Some slaveowners even continued to brutally punish their slaves during Christmas.
It is documented that on one South Carolina plantation, a slaveowner locked up an enslaved woman during Christmas after accusing her of deliberately miscarrying her pregnancy. Runaway slave Gordon, who was nicknamed “Whipped Peter”, was photographed at a union camp upon escaping slavery in the south. Gordon’s photograph displaying his very conspicuous scourged back stunned Americans in the north. Sources say he was whipped at Christmas.
During Christmas, some slaveowners also forced enslaved workers to wrestle with each other to amuse the household or the slaveowners’ family. Other slaves were forced to get drunk by their owners. Some slaveholders also continued to buy and sell enslaved workers during the holidays. Other slaves were even shipped off, far away from their families.
Indeed, Christmas was not a good time for many enslaved people in America. As such, many took advantage of the holidays to plot their escape. In December 1848, Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved married couple from Macon, Georgia, used passes from their owners during Christmas to plan their escape. They boarded trains and a steamboat to Philadelphia. Harriet Tubman also helped her three brothers enslaved in Maryland to escape during Christmas in 1854.
And as Christmas became an opportunity for resistance, some slaveowners feared rebellion during the season. So they often armed themselves during the period or banned Black people from the streets amid intense security. Slaves who proved stubborn or their owners felt were acting strange were whipped or killed. These and many other disturbing moments made Christmas almost unwelcome for America’s enslaved people.
Even for those who received gifts, their owners were just reinforcing their control over them. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum writes that one slaveowner said giving gifts to enslaved people on Christmas was a more appropriate tool to control them than physical violence.
“I killed twenty-eight head of beef for the people’s Christmas dinner. I can do more with them in this way than if all the hides of the cattle were made into lashes,” he said.