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How did Americans living under slavery experience the Christmas holidays? While early accounts from white Southerners after the Civil War often painted an idealized picture of owners’ generosity met by grateful workers happily feasting, singing and dancing, the reality was far more complex.

In the 1830s, the large slaveholding states of Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas became the first in the United States to declare Christmas a state holiday. It was in these Southern states and others during the antebellum period (1812-1861) that many Christmas traditions—giving gifts, singing carols, decorating homes—firmly took hold in American culture. Many enslaved workers got their longest break of the year—typically a handful of days—and some were granted the privilege to travel to see family or get married. Many received gifts from their owners and enjoyed special foods untasted the rest of the year.

But while many enslaved people partook in some of these holiday pleasures, Christmas time could be treacherous. According to Robert E. May, a professor of history at Purdue University and author of Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas and Southern Memory, owners’ fears of rebellion during the season sometimes led to pre-emptive shows of harsh discipline. Their buying and selling of workers didn’t abate during the holidays. Nor did their annual hiring out of enslaved workers, some of whom would be shipped off, away from their families, on New Year’s Day—widely referred to as “heartbreak day.”

Still, Christmas afforded enslaved people an annual window of opportunity to challenge the subjugation that shaped their daily lives. Resistance came in many ways—from their assertion of power to give gifts to expressions of religious and cultural independence to using the relative looseness of holiday celebrations and time off to plot escapes.

READ MORE: 25 Christmas Traditions and Their Origins

‘Christmas Gift!’

What Was Christmas Like for America’s Enslaved People?

Preparing for Christmas (Plucking Turkeys), painted by Francis William Edmonds, 1851.

For slaveholders, gift-giving connoted power. Christmas gave them the opportunity to express their paternalism and dominance over the people they owned, who almost universally lacked the economic power or means to purchase gifts. Owners often gave their enslaved workers things they withheld throughout the year, like shoes, clothing and money. According to Texas historian Elizabeth Silverthorne, one slaveholder from that state gave each of his families $25. The children were given sacks of candy and pennies. “Christmas day we gave out our donations to the servants, they were much pleased and we were saluted on all sides with grins, smiles and low bows,” wrote one Southern planter. In his book The Battle for Christmas, historian Stephen Nissenbaum recounts how a white overseer considered giving gifts to enslaved workers on Christmas a better source of control than physical violence: “I killed twenty-eight head of beef for the people’s Christmas dinner,” he said. “I can do more with them in this way than if all the hides of the cattle were made into lashes.”

Enslaved people rarely made reciprocal gifts to their owners, according to historians Shauna Bigham and Robert E. May: “Fleeting displays of economic equality would have controverted the [enslaved workers] prescribed role of childlike dependency.” Even when they played a common holiday game with their owners—where the first person who could surprise the other by saying “Christmas Gift!” received a present—they were not expected to give gifts when they lost.

In some instances, enslaved people did reciprocate with gifts to the masters when they lost in the game. On one plantation in the Low Country South Carolina, some enslaved house workers gave their owners eggs wrapped in handkerchiefs. Yet overall, the one-sided nature of gift-giving between slaveowners and those they enslaved reinforced the dynamic of white power and paternalism.

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Christmas Vacation and Freedom

For enslaved workers, Christmastime represented a break between the end of harvest season and the start of preparation for the next year of production—a brief sliver of freedom in lives marked by heavy labor and bondage. “This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased,” wrote famed writer, orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery at age 20. “Those of us who had families at a distance were generally allowed to spend the whole six days [between Christmas and New Year’s Day] in their society.”

Some used these more relaxed holiday times to run for freedom. In 1848, Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved married couple from Macon, Georgia, used passes from their owners during Christmastime to concoct an elaborate plan to escape by train and steamer to Philadelphia. On Christmas Eve in 1854, Underground Railroad icon Harriet Tubman set out from Philadelphia to Maryland’s Eastern Shore after she had heard her three brothers were going to be sold by their owner the day after Christmas. The owner had given them permission to visit family on Christmas Day. But instead of the brothers meeting with their families for dinner, their sister Harriet led them to freedom in Philadelphia.

READ MORE: The Daring Disguise That Helped One Enslaved Couple Escape to Freedom

John Kunering

For enslaved people, resistance during Christmastime didn’t always take the form of rebellion or flight in a geographical or physical sense. Often it came in the way they adapted the dominant society’s traditions into something of their own, allowing for the purest expression of their humanity and cultural roots. In Wilmington, North Carolina, enslaved people celebrated what they called John Kunering (other names include “Jonkonnu,” John Kannaus” and “John Canoe”), where they dressed in wild costumes and went from house to house singing, dancing and beating rhythms with rib bones, cow’s horns and triangles. At every stop they expected to receive a gift. “Every child rises on Christmas morning to see the John Kannaus,” remembered writer and abolitionist Harriet Jacobs in her autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. “Without them, Christmas would be shorn of its greatest attraction.”

These public displays of joy were not universally loved by all whites in Wilmington, but many encouraged the activities. “It would really be a source of regret, if it were denied to slaves in the intervals between their toils to indulge in mirthful past times,” said a white antebellum judge named Thomas Ruffin. For historian Sterling Stuckey, author of Slave Culture, the Kunering reflected deep African roots: “Considering the place of religion in West Africa, where dance and song are means of relating to ancestral spirits and to God, the Christmas season was conducive to Africans in America continuing to attach sacred value to John Kunering.”

READ MORE: 5 Things You May Not Know About Kwanzaa

‘None of the Negroes Was Ever Forgot on That Day’

Enslaved people had a long memory of Christmastime. They remembered how they used it to mark time around the planting season. They knew they could count on it for a measure of freedom and relaxation. Their inability to participate fully in gift exchange—one of the most basic aspects of the season—helped reinforce their place as men and women who couldn’t benefit from their labor. Some, like Harriet Tubman and the Crafts, saw it as a time best suited to challenge the whole society. 

The adults remembered the gifts long after their childhoods were stolen by this terrible institution. “Didn’t have no Christmas tree,” recounted a formerly enslaved man named Beauregard Tenneyson, in a WPA interview. “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.”

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