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‘A Long Time Between Drinks’ – Christmas Gifts from Masters to Slaves

The exchanging of presents at Christmas time, a traditional hold out from Roman holiday Saturnalia, has been going on long before Christmas even existed. Through American history, it’s something that has always existed. With Christmas, of course, comes the obligation to give gifts. This tradition existed even on the plantation.

In our two previous posts about how the former slaves remembered the Christmases of their youth, many told how they received candy from their enslavers, sometimes in the guise of Santa Claus.

Many masters would make a fine show of giving gifts to their slaves. There were, however, two very different sorts of gifts for the adults. Sometimes the slaves would receive what seemed like actual gifts – some item beyond the scope of necessity. Often it would be alcohol, but in other cases, they’d receive sugar or fancy foods or “all the good things just like the white folks.”

Most Christmas gifts given by masters to the slaves weren’t gifts at all. Almost all of the slaves received their ration of clothing and shoes as Christmas gifts. For many, this didn’t seem like a gift at all, “because he going to get that anyhow.” Many remembered that they their owners had to give them clothes on Christmas or “or us go naked.”

Annie Stanton, Mobile, Alabama
At Christmas times the overseer called all the men and women in and give each woman a dress, a head handkerchief, and to the men he gave a hat, knife, and a bottle of whiskey. The overseer also give to us flour and sugar for Christmas, and I remembers one Christmas when I was a little gal, after the overseer give all the women a dress there was a short piece of cloth left and he give that to me.

Sol Walton, Mobile, Alabama
On Christmas Day massa always give the slaves a little present, mostly something to wear, because he going to get that anyhow.

Mary James, James River, Virginia
On Christmas morning all the slaves would go up to the porch, get the $2.50, shoes and clothes, go back to the cabins and do what they wanted.

Rosaline Rogers, South Carolina
The slaves were given a pair of shoes at Christmas time and if they were worn out before summer, they were forced to go barefoot.

Bernice Bowden, Clark County, Alabama
Mama belonged to the Campbells and Papa belonged to Davis Solomon, and I know every Christmas they let him come to see Mama, and he’d bring me and my sister a red dress buttoned in the back. I remember it same as if it was yesterday because I was crazy about them red dresses.

Litt Young, Vicksburg, Mississippi
Every Christmas us got a set white lowell clothes and a pair brogan shoes and they done us the whole year, or us go naked.

William McWhorter, Greene County, Georgia
Marse Joe let his slaves have one day for holiday at Christmas and he give them plenty of extra good something to eat and drink on that special day.

Gus Bradshaw, Keecheye, Alabama
Massa David always give us eggnog and plenty good whiskey at Christmas. We had all day to eat and drink and sing and dance. We didn’t get no presents, but we had a good time.

Sam Polite, Beaufort County, South Carolina
Every year in Christmas month you gets four or five yards of cloth according to how you is. Out of that, you have to make your clothes. You wears that same clothes till the next year. You wears it winter and summer, Sunday and every day. You don’t get no coat, but they give you shoes.

James Bolton, Athens, Georgia
Christmas we always had plenty good something to eat and we all got together and had lots of fun. We runned up to the big house early Christmas morning and holler out: ‘Morning, Christmas Gift!’ Then they’d give us plenty of Santy Claus and we would go back to our cabins to have fun til New Year’s day.

Cato Carter, Wicox County, Alabama
Christmas was the big day at the Carter’s. Presents for every body, and the baking and preparing went on for days. The little ones and the big ones were glad, especially the nigger mens on account of plenty good whiskey. Mr. Oll Carter got the best whiskey for his niggers.

Eliza White, Harris County, Georgia
And I still remembers the Christmas I got my first shoes. I just hugged them tight and went to sleep holding them. They was button shoes. [These were made by her father, who was a cobbler.]

Louis Cain, North Carolina
One nigger run to the woods to be a jungle nigger, but massa catched him with the dogs and took a hot iron and brands him. Then he put a bell on him, in a wooden frame what slip over the shoulders and under the arms. He made that nigger wear the bell a year and took it off on Christmas for a present to him. It sure did make a good nigger out of him.

Callie Elder, Clarke County, Georgia
Christmas Day Marse Billy called us to the big house and give us a little fresh meat and sweet bread, that was cake. Christmas weren’t much different from other times. Just more to eat. Us just had that one day off, and New Year’s Day was used as a holiday too.

Peter Clifton, Camden, South Carolina
They give us Christmas Day. Every woman got a handkerchief to tie up her hair. Every girl got a ribbon, every boy a Barlow knife, and every man a shin plaster [a low denomination of paper money]. The neighbors call the place, the shin plaster, Barlow, Bandanna place. Us always have a dance in the Christmas.

Rosaline Rogers, Tennessee
The slaves were given a pair of shoes at Christmas time and if they were worn out before summer, they were forced to go barefoot.

Charley Hurt, Oglethorpe County, Georgia
I must tell you about that whiskey and brandy. Massa have he own still and always have three barrels or more whiskey and brandy on hand. Then on Christmas Day, him puts a tub of whiskey or brandy in the yard and hangs tin cups around the tub. Us helps ourselves. At first us start joking with each other, then starts to sing and everybody am happy. Massa watches us and if one us getting too much, massa sends him to he cabin and he sleep it off. Anyway, That one day on massa’s place all am happy and forgets they am slaves.

Harriet Mason, Garrard County, Kentucky
At Christmas and New Years we sure did have big times and General Gano and Miss Nat would buy us candy, popcorn, and firecrackers and all the good things just like the white folks.

Still from Gone with the Wind.

Georgia Baker, Athens, Georgia
Marse Alec would call the grown folks to the big house early in the morning and pass around a big pewter pitcher full of whiskey, then he would put a little whiskey in that same pitcher and fill it with sweetened water and give that to us children. Us called that ‘toddy’ or ‘dram’. Marse Alex always had plenty of good whiskey, because Uncle Willis made it up for him and it was made just right.

Mary Scott, Greeleville, South Carolina
I don’t remember what they give on Christmas day. My family got clothes.

Jane Lassiter, Raleigh, North Carolina
Course our shoes was given out at Christmas. We got one pair a year and when they wore out we got no more and had to go barefooted the rest of the time. You had to take care of that pair of shoes because they was all you got a year.

Silas Jackson, Ashbie’s Gap, Virginia
On Christmas day Mr. Ashbie would call all the slaves together, give them presents, money, after which they spent the day as they liked.

Heard Griffin, Monroe, Georgia
On Christmas the master called each slave and gave him a dram of whiskey. No other food or fruit was given.

Gordon Bluford, Newberry, South Carolina
On Christmas Day we was given liquor to get drunk on, but didn’t have no dinner.

Rias Body, Harris County, Georgia
At Christmas, every slave on the Body plantation received a present. The Negro children received candy, raisins and “nigger-toes”, balls, marbles, etc.

Charlie Van Dyke, Mobile, Alabama
(from a piece written by the interviewer)
The only day that Uncle Charlie said they were given any real holiday was Christmas, everybody got his drink of whiskey on Christmas, and not another drink until next Christmas, “it sure seemed a long time between drinks”, added Charlie with a smile.

Eric
Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.
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