When interviewed in the late 1930s, most of the formerly-enslaved people fondly recalled the Christmas seasons when they were in bondage. In many cases, the interviewers specifically asked about holidays, and most times, the subjects shared a memory they held dear.
Though most of the remembrances are positive, even jovial, it’s important to remember that almost all of the subjects interviewed in the 1930s were children when freedom came. They are, essentially, old folks recalling their youth.
Their short recollections about Christmas illustrate what was important to children. On many plantations, the enslavers would throw a party for their slaves. They’d give candy to the children. There was dancing and merriment, and for a day or so, “it didn’t seem like slavery time.”
The first part in our five-part look at how slaves remembered Christmas seems rather positive and upbeat. “Christmas was the best time of all,” recalled one. “It sure was one grand time,” spoke another.
Christmas on the typical plantation seems to have gone like this: The slaves were given up to a week off, with only the basic chores to do. On Christmas day itself, the masters would allow his slaves to have some alcohol, they’d be allowed to come to the big house with their children to collect a small gift. Often there would be a large dinner. Sometimes it would be at or near the big house, but often it was near the slave quarters and resembled a barbecue. There’d be dancing and drinking and general frolicking. All knew that soon they’d have to act like slaves again, but for a day, they’d “put it on brown.”
This is not, of course, the full story. Almost every remembrance hints at this. In our upcoming posts, we’ll explore the other aspects of a Christmas during slavery times, but for now, how the enslaved Americans “did frolic and cut up at Christmas!”
Andrew “Smoky” Columbia, Linden, Texas
On Christmas Master John always give the slaves a big dinner and it didn’t seem like slavery time.
Will Adams, Marshall, Texas
On Christmas we had all we could eat and drink and after that a big party, and you ought to see them gals swinging they partners round. Then massa have two niggers wrestle, and our sports and dances was big sport for the white folks. They’d sit on the gallery and watch the niggers put it on brown.
Elvira Boles, Lexington, Mississippi
Christmas come, they give us a big eggnog and give us cake. Our white folks did. White folks children had bought candy. We didn’t get any, but they let us play with the white children.
Mary Colbert, Athens, Georgia
Christmas time was a holiday season for slaves, and they had everything good you could want to eat. Listen, Child, I am telling you the truth. They even had pumpkin pie. Oh, yes!
John Davenport, Newberry, South Carolina
We had three days holiday when Christmas come, and we had plenty good things to eat, but we had to cook it ourselves. The marster would give the children little pieces of candy.
Beauregard Tenneyson, Craig County, Texas
Them kind of good times makes me think of Christmas. Didn’t have no Christmas tree, but they set up a long pine table in the house and that plank table was covered with presents and none of the Negroes was ever forgot on that day.
Horace Overstreet, Harrison County, Texas
Christmas time and Fourth July they have the dance, just a regular old breakdown dance. Some was dancing Swing the Corner, and some in the middle of the floor cutting the chicken wing. They has banjo pickers. Seem like my folks was happy when they starts dancing.
Eda Rains, Little Rock, Arkansas
Now, I must tell you all about Christmas. Our biggest time was at Christmas. Marster would give us maybe four bits to spend as we wanted and maybe we’d buy a string of beads or some such notion. On Christmas Eve we played games, ‘Young Gal Loves Candy,’ or ‘Hide and Whoop.’ […] Old Marster always called us together and give us new clothes, shoes too. He always went to town on the Eve and brung back our things in a cotton sack. That old sack would be crammed full of things and we knewed it was clothes and shoes, because Marster didn’t believe in no foolishness. We got one pair shoes a year, at Christmas. Most times they was red and I’d always paint mine black. I’s one nigger who didn’t like red. I’d skim grease off dishwater, mix it with soot from the chimney and paint my shoes. In winter we wore woolen clothes and got them at Christmas, too.
Jack Bess, San Angelo, Texas
We had a few [camp meetings] then and on Christmas times we just tears up the country. Lordy! Lord! That fiddling went on all night, and we dance awhile then lay down and sleeps, then gets up and dances some more. We would have big cakes and everything good to eat.
Frank Gill, Mobile, Alabama
Christmas time was the best of all, because us all had a big dinner, and the Ol’ Marster give the women calico dresses and shoes, and the men shoes and hats, and would give us flour, and sugar, molasses, and would buy beer, whiskey and wine.
Easter Huff, Oglethorpe County, Georgia
Oh! us did have a time at Christmas. They would have plenty to eat; eggnog and all sorts of good things, and sometimes mens and womans got drunk and cut up. Marse Jabe always give us a little cheese to eat Christmas time.
Solomon Caldwell, Newberry, South Carolina
On Christmas we got together and tried to have extra things to eat, and maybe a few drinks.
Red Richardson, Grimes County, Texas
On Christmas they’d make egg nog, drink whiskey and kiss their girls.
Everett R. Pierce, Columbia, South Carolina
You wants to know if we had any parties for pastime? Well ma’am, not many. We never was allowed to have no parties nor dances, only from Christmas Day to New Year’s eve. We had plenty good things to eat on Christmas Day and Santa Claus was good to us too. We’d have all kinds of frolics from Christmas to New Years but never was allowed to have no fun after that time.
Minnie Davis, Athens, Georgia
Christmas was a grand time at Marse John’s. We had everything good to eat under the sun at that time and, as my mother was the cook, I was sure of getting my share of the good things.
Martha Bradley, Montgomery, Alabama
But Marster Lucas give us big times on Christmas and July. Us would have big dinners and all the lemonade us could drink. The dinner would be spread out on de ground and all the niggers would stand round and eat all they wanted. What was left us would take it to our cabins. Nancy Lucas was the cook for everybody. Well, she’d sure cook good cake and had plenty of them but she wouldn’t like to cut them cakes often. She keep them in a safe. One day I go to that safe and I saw some and I wanted it so bad till I just had to have some. Nancy say to me, ‘Martha, did you cut that cake?’ I say, ‘No sir! that knife just flew around by itself and cut that cake.’
Georgia Baker, Athens, Georgia
“Christmas Day! Oh, what a time us Niggers did have that day! Marse Lordnorth and Marse Alec give us everything you could name to eat: cake of all kinds, fresh meat, lightbread, turkeys, chickens, ducks, geese, and all kinds of wild game. There was always plenty of pecans, apples, and dried peaches too at Christmas. Marse Alec had some trees what had fruit that looked like bananas on them, but I done forgot what was the name of them trees.
Lou Smith, Platter, Oklahoma
Old Master and Mistress would come down to the quarters to eat Christmas dinners sometimes and also birthday dinners. It was sure a big day when they done that. They’d eat first, and the niggers would sing and dance to entertain them. Old Master would walk around through the quarters talking to the ones that was sick or too old to work. He was awful kind. I never knowed him to whip much.
Clayton Holbert, Linn County, Tennessee
There were also festivals we went to during the Christmas vacation. There was always a big celebration on Christmas. We worked until Christmas Eve and from that time until New Year’s we had a vacation. We had no such thing as Thanksgiving, we had never heard of such a thing.
William Nelson, Belmont, Missouri
On Christmas Day they always had big dinner but no tree or gifts.
Jefferson Franklin Henry, Paulding County, Georgia
Sure, Christmastime was when slaves had their own fun. There weren’t nothing extra or different given them, only plenty to eat and drink; Marse Robert always made lots of whiskey and brandy. He give his slaves six days holiday and allowed them to have passes. They frolicked, danced, and visited around and called it having a good time. Work begun again on New Year’s Day and there warn’t no more holidays ’til the next Christmas.
John F. Van Hook, Macon County, North Carolina
Now, Christmas morning! Yes, ma’am, that was a powerful time with the darkies, if they didn’t have nothing but a little sweet cake, which was nothing more than gingerbread. However, Marse George did have plenty of good things to eat at that time, such as fresh pork and wild turkeys, and we were allowed to have a biscuit on that day. How we did frolic and cut up at Christmas!
Frances Willingham, Twiggs County, Georgia
Miss Polly had fresh meat, cake, syrup pudding and plenty of good sweet butter what she allowed out to her slaves at Christmas. Old Marster, he made syrup by the barrel. Plenty of apples and nuts and groundpeas was raised right there on the plantation. In the Christmas, the only work slaves done was just piddling around the house and yards, cutting wood, raking leaves, looking after the stock, waiting on the white folks and little chores like that.
Mariah Callaway, Washington, Georgia
On Christmas Day big dinners were given for all of the slaves and a few ate from the family’s table after they had finished their dinner.
Molly Ammond, Eufaula, Alabama
Christmas was the big time; there was several days to rest and make merrying and lots of them no count niggers got drunk.
Sarah Benjamin, Corsincana, Texas
On Christmas we all has the week vacation and maybe a dance. We always have a grand dinner on that day, and no whippings. But they couldn’t leave the plantation without a pass, even on Christmas.
Dosia Harris, Athens, Georgia
Christmas was sure one grand time. There weren’t no big heap of good things like they has now. Old Mistress gave the Niggers a little flour and syrup for to make sweet cake. There was plenty of fresh hog meat and chickens and all sorts of dried fruits. I was always plum crazy about the rag doll grandma would make for my Christmas present.
Solbert Butler, South Carolina
No one go to that house but only the rich. At Christmas they’d go up there. And oh, I couldn’t number it! Oh, it was paradise. He was good to them. And he whip them good, too! Tie them to the fence post and whip them. But I didn’t have anything of that. I was a little boy. Just about six year old when the war broke out. But I got plenty of whippings all right.