After the Civil War, White Southerners wrote short stories, memoirs, and novels that seek to justify slavery. Slave Christmases have been made to sound beautiful in some of these novels, which describe how enslaved men and women sang, danced, and sat eating lavish meals throughout the holidays, just as their masters did.
According to some of these memoirs, enslaved individuals dressed up for Christmas and even performed holiday games with their masters. But, contrary to what these memoirs by White Southerners would have you believe, Christmas was never truly a joyous occasion for enslaved people.
True, many enslaved individuals were given time off over the Christmas season. The season becomes their longest break of the year, a period of time between the end of harvest and the beginning of preparations for the following year’s production. They could visit their families, get married, or participate in activities that they wouldn’t have been able to do at other times of the year.
“By the favor of our masters, we regarded this time as our own; and we consequently used or abused it nearly as we liked,” wrote abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in his twenties. “Those of us with far-flung family were often permitted to spend the entire six days [between Christmas and New Year’s Day] in their society.”
Some enslaved men and women were also given presents from their masters, such as clothing, shoes, or money, and were treated to special meals that they would not have had during other times of the year. However, not all enslaved individuals received the following advantages, and those who did may have them taken away at any time by their owners. During the Christmas season, several slaveowners continued to violently torture their slaves.
It has been documented that a slave owner on a South Carolina plantation imprisoned an enslaved woman during the Christmas season after accusing her of intentionally miscarrying her pregnancy. When Gordon, a runaway slave called “Whipped Peter,” escaped slavery in the south, he was photographed at a union camp. Americans in the north were astonished by Gordon’s photo, which showed his prominently scourged back. He was whipped at Christmas, according to sources.
Some slaveowners compelled enslaved Africans to fight with each other over the Christmas season to amuse the slaveowners’ families. Enslaved Africans were also forced to get drunk by their masters. During the holidays, some slaveowners continued to acquire and sell enslaved workers. Other slaves were even separated from their families and shipped elsewhere.
For many enslaved people in America, Christmas was a difficult time. As a result, many people used the holidays to plan their escape. Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved married couple from Macon, Georgia, used permits from their owners to plot their escape in December 1848. They traveled to Philadelphia by train and steamboat. Harriet Tubman also assisted her three brothers in Maryland in escaping during the Christmas season of 1854.
Some slaveowners dreaded revolt around the Christmas season as it became an opportunity for resistance. As a result, they frequently armed themselves or prohibited Black people from the streets during this time, despite increased security. Slaves who were recalcitrant or acted strangely in the eyes of their masters were whipped or killed. Christmas was nearly unwanted for America’s enslaved African people because of these and other disturbing events.
Even those who received gifts were simply reinforcing their owners’ grip over them. According to historian Stephen Nissenbaum, one slaveowner believed that delivering gifts to enslaved people on Christmas was a better way to control them than using physical violence.
“For the people’s Christmas meal, I butchered twenty-eight head of beef.” “This way, I can accomplish more with them than if all the cattle hides were turned into lashes,” he explained.