Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Week

Looking for an image to share for Christmas Eve I came across the bottom image from the Library of Congress, titled "Christmas Week." It was one of 12 lithographic image cards contained in a series with the cover to the left. These appear to be something similar to modern baseball "trading cards" and were called Stephens' Album Varieties: The Slave in 1863. The 12 cards depicted nine images of enslaved life, as well as three of black soldier life.

Christmas was often a time of celebration for the enslaved as well as for the master class. For the slaves it was usually a chance to temporarily have off from strenuous work details. When slave families were located on different farms or plantations it also was often a time of relaxed security with passes freely given to visit estranged friends and family nearby.

Despite the air of festivity, for some slaves it must have also been a time of worry, as the normal season for renting out surplus laborers soon came with the new year. With hiring out time also came the potential of being separated from husbands, wives, sons, and daughters for possibly greater distances and for longer durations.

To share the Christmas season as experienced by enslaved people I found a selection in Slave Religion: The "Invisible" Institution in the Antebellum South by Albert J. Raboteau, and which was printed in 1978. From page 224:

"Christmas was the most festive holiday of all. Generally, the slaves received three to six days off to celebrate the Christmas season and were permitted to visit family and friends on neighboring plantations. On Christmas day it was customary for slaves to greet the master's family with cries of 'Christmas gift, Christmas gift,' to which the whites were obliged to respond with a small gift, perhaps tobacco for the men, ribbons for the women, ginger cakes for the children, and some small tokens for favorite slaves. Drams of whiskey, bowls of eggnog and other spirits were freely distributed, and a special Christmas supper was prepared for the quarters as well as for the big house. The slaves dressed in the best clothes they could gather in anticipation of the supper and the visiting and merrymaking which followed. Then, as now, Christmas was more a holiday than a holy day. Feasting, drinking, and dancing were the order of the day and must have sorely tempted the more religious slaves. As Adeline Jackson recalled, 'Everything lively at Christmas time, dances wid fiddlers, pattin' and stick rattlin', but when I jined de church, I quit dancin',' She allowed that fiddlers, dancers and patters were 'all nothin' but sinners, I wuz too, but we sho' had a good time.' Christmas season did give the religious slave time to hold prayer meetings, to preach and to pray. Yet, 'many of the strict members of the church who did not dance,' Jacob Stroyer asserted, 'would be forced to do it to please their masters.' At any rate, slaves whether religious or not looked forward to Christmas as an all-too-short break from plantation routine. With the arrival of New Year's the celebration ended, and another year of work faced the slaves."

No comments:

Post a Comment