Christmas in slavery times was often one of the only days when the slaves didn’t feel like slaves. This was the day many recalled with the most fondness. Amid the stories of being sold away from their parents, whippings, lynchings and the dreaded overseers and hounds, the talk of Christmas parties, gifts, and even Santa Claus was for many of the enslaved the fondest memory of childhood.
However, this was not the case for an enormous number of slaves. Some remember Christmas as a day off with no festivities or observances. Others didn’t even hear of Christmas until after freedom. Many weren’t even given the day off.
“They didn’t give us nothing,” spoke a former Texan slave, “but a grubbing hoe and axe and the whip.”
These recollections are understandably bitter. While many formerly enslaved people could look back upon slavery and at least focus on the happier times of Christmas, the subjects below could not.
Charlie Aarons, Oak Grove, Alabama
When asked if they had any special festivities at Christmas or any other holiday, he replied:
“No, we had no special jolifications”.
Rachel Adams, Athens, Georgia
They didn’t have but one day in the Christmas, and the only difference they saw that day was that they give them some biscuits on Christmas day.
Mingo White, Tuscumbia, Alabama
On Christmas we didn’t have to do no work; no more than feed the stock and do a little work around the house. When we got through with that we had the rest of the day to run around wherever we wanted to go. Of course, we had to get permission from the massa.
Fred James, South Carolina
I remember when freedom come, old marse said, ‘You is all free, but you can work on and make this crop of corn and cotton; then I will divide up with you when Christmas comes.’ They all worked, and when Christmas come, marse told us we could get on and shuffle for ourselves, and he didn’t give us anything. We had to steal corn out of the crib. We pried the ears out between the cracks and took them home and parched them. We would have to eat on these for several days.
Ellen Butler, Whiska Chitto, Louisiana
“On Christmas time they give us a meal. I remember that. I don’t remember no other holidays.
Sylvia Durant, Marion, South Carolina
Didn’t nobody have to work on Sunday and then they would allow them two days off for Christmas too. I telling you about how my white folks would do, but them what had a rough Massa, they just got one day. I hear them say they always had a little flour on Christmas. Don’t know what else they give them, but weren’t nothing much. I know that. Sure know that.”
Emma Watson, Ellis County, Texas
The only frolics I remember was candy pullings on Christmas. That all us niggers knowed about Christmas.
Louisa Adams, Rockingham, North Carolina
If fire was out or any work needed doing around the house we had to work on Sundays. They did not give us Christmas or any other holidays.
Alice Alexander, Jackson Parish, Louisiana
Didn’t know there was any Christmas or holidays in them days.
Sarah Wilson, Fort Smith, Arkansas
They didn’t tell us anything about Christmas and New Year though, and all we done was work.
Austin Grant, Mississippi
Christmas? I don’t know as I was ever home Christmas. My boss kept me hired out. The slaves never had no Christmas presents I know of. And big dinners, I never was at nary one. They didn’t give us nothing, I tell you, but a grubbing hoe and axe and the whip.
Octavia George, Mansieur, Louisiana
Now remind you, all the Negroes didn’t get these two or three acres [to garden], only good masters allowed their slaves to have a little crop of their own. We would take the money from our little crops and buy a few clothes and something for Christmas. The men would save enough money out of the crops to buy their Christmas whiskey. It was all right for the slaves to get drunk on Christmas and New Years Day; no one was whipped for getting drunk on those days.
Emma Jeter, Union, South Carolina
Well, Marse Harrison didn’t allow Pa to see Ma except twice a year — laying-by time and Christmas. My Pa still belonged to Miss Sarah Barnett. That’s exactly why I is got five half-sisters and one-half brother.
Richard Macks, Charles County, Maryland
Christmas everybody had holidays, our mistress never gave presents.
Ferebe Rogers, Baldwin County, Georgia
Christmas—huh!—Christmas weren’t no different from other times. We used to have quilting parties, candy pullings, dances, corn shuckings, games like thimble and such like
Marilda Pethy, Montgomery City, Missouri
Christmas never meant no more to us than any other day. They give mother sorghum and shorts to make gingersnaps.
Charity McAllister, Harnett County, North Carolina
One pair of shoes a year after Christmas. They give them to us on January first; no shoes till after Christmas. They did not give us any holidays Christmas in Harnett County. That was against the rules. No prayer nor nothing on the plantation in our houses. They did not allow us to go to the white folks church. They did not allow the slaves to hunt, so we did not have any game. They did not allow us any [garden] patches. No sirree, we did not have any money.
Ellen Butler, Whiska Chitto, Louisiana
On Christmas time they give us a meal. I remember that. I don’t remember no other holidays.
Madison Griffin, Whitmire, South Carolina
We didn’t have but one day off, that was Christmas Day and then we had to grind our axes.
Henry Brown, Charleston, South Carolina
Dr. Rose gave me to his son, Dr. Arthur Barnwell Rose, for a Christmas present. After the war Dr. Rose went back to England. He said he couldn’t stay in a country with so many free Negroes. Then his son Dr. Arthur Barnwell Rose had the plantation. Those was good white people, good white people.
Tyler Frazier, Ouachita County, Texas
We didn’t know about no money. When we got sick that’s when we got biscuits. We didn’t know about Thanksgiving day and Christmas. We heard the white folks talking bout it but we didn’t know what it meant.
Gus Williams, Russellville, Arkansas
Old marster was good to his slaves, I was told, but don’t recollect anything about him. Of course I was too young. Was born on Christmas day, 1857—but I don’t see anything specially interesting in being a Christmas present; never got me nothing, and never will.
Mollie Malone, Locust Grove, Georgia
On this plantation the Negroes were not allowed to engage in any frolics or attend social gatherings. They only knew Christmas by the return of the hired out slaves, who came home for a week before the next auction.
Hannah Davidson, Ballard County, Kentucky
We never observed Christmas. We never had no holidays, son, no, sir! We didn’t know what the word was.
Charlie Van Dyke, Mobile, Alabama
(from a piece written by the interviewer)
His stepfather could only visit them once a year, and that privilege was given him on Christmas Day. He had to start back the next day, as he had to make the trip to and fro on horse back.
William Black, Hannibal, Missouri
At the age of thirteen my sister was bonded out to some man who was awful mean, she was a bad girl, too. After we were freed she told me all about her old master. She said, ‘One Christmas my master was drunk and I went to wish him a merry Christmas and get some candy. He hit at me and I ducked and run around the house so fast I burnt the grass around that house and I know there ain’t no grass growing there yet.
Lee Pierce, Marshall, Texas
On Christmas we never got nothing but white shorts. Them was for biscuits and they was just like cake to the niggers in slavery time. Marse Fowler didn’t have too much regard for his black folks. Two families of them was stolen niggers. A speculator done stole them in Arkansas and fetched them to Texas.
Mary Johnson, Newberry, South Carolina
We didn’t get much time off, except maybe a day at Christmas.
George Eason, Forsyth, Georgia
Every day was considered a working day except Sunday, Thanksgiving and Christmas. They were not allowed to celebrate on these days as were the slaves on other nearby plantations.
Agatha Babino, Carenco, Louisiana
We had Sunday off. Christmas was off, too. They give us chicken and flour then. But most holidays the white folks has company. That mean more work for us.
Dennis Simms, Contee, Maryland
Christmas made little difference at Contee, except that we were given extra rations of food then. We had to toe the mark or be flogged with a rawhide whip, and almost every day there was from two to ten thrashings given on the plantations to disobedient Negro slaves.
Sam Stewart, Wake County, North Carolina
We got Christmas holidays from Christmas to New Years day. This was also a time when slaves were hired out or sold. You were often put on the auction block at Christmas.