The American Santa Claus is fully a product of the era of slave times. His personality became so popular that it couldn’t help but pour over into the slave population. That he appeared numerous times in the recollections of former slaves isn’t surprising. After all, almost every former slave interviewed in the 1930s was a child when the war broke out.
But while many remember “looking up the chimney for Santa Claus,” there are more than a few who, “never know nothing about Santa Claus ’till Freedom.” Whether this was by the design of their masters, or just that Santa Claus was not yet part of the local Christmas celebrations isn’t easy to sort, though it’s likely a bit of both.
Most of the recollections of Santa Claus seem to come from Georgia. The Peach State had no monopoly on St. Nick, of course. It’s just that the interviewers covering Georgia were specifically tasked with asking about Christmas and Santa Claus.
The customs are often familiar to us. There were stockings at the big house (and even some in the slave quarters), Some even employed paternalistic bribery to get the children to behave, because if they were bad, “Santa Claus would not come to us.”
Santa Claus was one of the few aspects of slavery where the enslavers fostered a relationship with the children they owned. Often the wives or daughters would dress up as Santa to distribute small gifts. And almost as often, the children would see through their disguise, just as their parents often saw through the disguise of Christmas.
Elisha Doc Garey, Hart County, Georgia
Christmas mornings us children was up before squirrels, looking up the chimney for Santa Claus. There was plenty to eat den — syrup, cake, and everything.
Mary Colbert, Athens, Georgia
Santa Claus came to see slave children. Once I got too smart for my own good. Miss Fannie and Miss Ann had told us to go to bed early. They said if we weren’t asleep when Santa Claus got there, he would go away and never come back. Well, that night I made up my mind to stay awake and see Santa Claus. Miss Fannie and Miss Ann slipped into our quarters right easy and quiet and were filling up stockings with candy, dolls, and everything you can imagine. While they were doing that, they turned around and saw me with my eyes wide open. Right there my Santa Claus ended.
Millie Forward, Jasper, Texas
Before Christmas, Massa go to town and buy all kinds candy and toys and say, ‘Millie, you go out on the gallery and holler and tell Santy not forget to fill your stocking tonight.’ I holler loud as I can and next morning my stocking chock full.
Green Willbanks, Commerce, Georgia
About Christmas Day? They always had something like brandy, cider, or whiskey to stimulate the slaves on Christmas Day. Then there was fresh meat and ash-roasted sweet ‘taters, but no cake for slaves on our place, anyhow, I never saw no cake, and surely no Santa Claus. All we knowed about Christmas was eating and drinking.
Eda Rains, Little Rock, Arkansas
Didn’t know nothing about Santa Claus, never was learned that. But we always knowed what we’d get on Christmas morning.
Minnie Davis, Athens, Georgia
Miss Fannie and Miss Sue played Santa Claus to slave children. I was sorry when Mary got too smart and peeped to see what it was all about, for after that they just came to our house and handed us the things that would have come as Santa Claus.
Georgia Baker, Athens, Georgia
No Ma’am, us never knowed nothing about Santa Claus ’til after the war.
Sam Polite, Beaufort County, South Carolina
Us never know nothing about Santa Claus ’till Freedom, but on Christmas Massa give you meat and syrup and maybe three day without work.
John Wells, Edmondson, Arkansas
I never seen a Ku Klux. Bad Ku Klux sound sort of like good Santa Claus. I heard them say it was real. I never seen neither one.
Arrie Binns, Lincoln County, Georgia
Santa Claus always found his way to the Quarters and brought them stick candy and other things to eat.
Anna Parkes, Georgia
Us children would get up long before day Christmas morning. Us used to hang our stockings over the fire place, but when Christmas morning come they was so full, it would of busted them to hang them up on a nail, so they was always laying on Ma’s chair when us waked up. Us children weren’t allowed to go around the big house early on Christmas morning because us might disturb our white folkses’ rest, and then they done already see that us got plenty Santa Claus in our own cabins.
Eliza Madison, Stoddard County, Missouri
At Christmas we’d get candy or a new dress. On one Christmas old Christine or Santa Clause would wrap up in a blanket and this is how we got our presents. Down there the hickory nuts grew big and it was a funny thing when we found out that old Christine was giving us our own hickory nuts.
Jefferson Franklin Henry, Paulding County, Georgia
No, ma’am, not many slave children knowed what Santa Claus was or what Christmas was meant to celebrate ’til they got some schooling after the war was over.
Anderson Edwards, Rusk County, Texas
Generally Christmas was like any other day, but I got Santa Claus twice in slavery, because massa give me a sack of molasses candy once and some biscuits once and that was a whole lot to me then.
Emma Hurley, Georgia
There was one day holiday at Christmas, “but I never heard of a Santa Claus when I was a child.”
Jane Mickens Toombs, Wilkes County, Georgia
At Christmas Santa Claus found his way to the Quarters on the Gollatt plantation and each little slave had candy, apples, and “such good things as that.”
Peter Hamilton, Pine Bluff, Arkansas
Before Christmas, the white folks would tell us if we stole chickens, eggs, ducks and things, or go in the apple orchard, and was bad, Santa Claus would not come to us. But if we were good, he would bring gifts to us. Before Christmas, the white folks would make a Santa Claus out of clothes and stuff it, put a pack on his back, and stand him up in the road. Colored children feared to go near him.
Wheeler Gresham, Georgia
Santa Claus found his way to the Quarters and left the little negroes stick candy and raisins, and “there was a plenty of pound cake for everybody.”
Fannie Griffin, 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.
Frances Willingham, Twiggs County, Georgia
Christmas times, children went to bed early because they was scared Santa Claus wouldn’t come. Us carried our stockings up to the big house to hang them up. Next morning us found them full of all sorts of good things, except oranges. I never seed nary an orange ’til I was a big gal.
Alice Green, Clarke County, Georgia
Christmas weren’t much different from other times. Us children had a heap of fun a-looking for Santa Claus. The old folks danced, quilted, and pulled candy during the Christmastime.
Maggie Woods, Summerville, Tennessee
Had a little candy once in a while. That be the best thing Santa Claus would bring me. We get ginger cakes in our new stockings too. Santa Claus been coming ever since I been in the world. Seem like Christmas never would come round again. It don’t seem near so long now.