The festive season provides a time and space for dancing (badly or otherwise), along with socializing, eating, drinking and celebrating. As befits a Christian celebration it also grants time for religious worship and quiet reflection. One might not immediately associate Christmas with the regime of slavery in the antebellum (c.1815-1861) US South. However, this was a strongly Christian society (ironically one in which slaveholders used Biblical references to enslavement to defend their ownership of others) based upon a largely rural and agricultural plantation system, where the seasonal religious and agricultural rhythms of the year defined people’s lives whether free or enslaved.
[Image credit: Winter holidays in the southern states. Plantation frolic on Christmas Eve. DIGITAL FILE FROM B&W FILM COPY NEG. 1857]
Christmas generated much excitement, especially for white women of the slaveholding class. Their exploitation of enslaved women in domestic roles as childminders, cooks, waiting maids, cleaners, laundresses, and wet nurses enabled privileged white women to lead lives of genteel pleasures, in which socializing with their peers played an important role in cultivating female friendships, as well as for meeting potential suitors to court, and perhaps eventually marry. In her seminal work, The Plantation Mistress, historian Catherine Clinton describes how white slaveholding women and their daughters remained busy throughout December hosting and attending various dances and tea-parties. Such events provided opportunities to dress up, socialize and have fun, all of which came as a welcome relief for white plantation women who often lived in relative isolation from their peers.
Dancing was also important to enslaved people, with some, though not all, slaveholders permitting Christmas ‘frolics’ where they could dance, sing, and feast. Enslaved people enjoyed these festivities because, in a similar way to their religious beliefs, they served an important function in providing hope, dignity, and self-respect for people living under bondage. Enslaved people dressed up in their finest clothes, styled their hair, and enjoyed a temporary respite from the arduousness and monotony of their everyday lives.
However, as pointed out by authors including Robert E. May, Michael Mclean and Michael Twitty, festive frolics served the interests of enslavers, fostering their sense of their own alleged benevolence. They believed they treated enslaved people well through permitting festive ‘treats’ such as frolics, additional food, alcohol, visits to loved ones, and sometimes even small presents. But they did not indulge all their enslaved people this way, notes Robert May. Slaveholders’ belief in their own paternalism was more important than the reality. Moreover, white enslavers that nostalgic and self-serving Christmas memories later formed an important part of postbellum white reminiscences about the era of slavery, as pointed out by historian David J Anderson. He argues that authors writing during the era of the ‘lost cause’ (in which former enslavers lamented the loss of their regime) commonly (mis)remembered Christmas as a time enjoyed by both white slaveholders and their ‘grateful’ and ‘ faithful’ enslaved people.
Moreover, because Christmas frolics enabled enslaved people to meet, court, and ultimately marry members of the opposite sex, they also facilitated the eventual reproduction of the enslaved labour force. Enslaved people entered wedlock according to societal mores and expectations and often at Christmas time, even though US law denied them citizenship. Importantly, slaveholders were well aware that marriage (and reproduction within marriage) provided the easiest route to increasing their supply of property through the birth of valuable infants. So enabling dancing brought real long-term economic benefits for enslavers.
Christmas also quelled potential discontent. The former slave Frederick Douglass recalled in his 1845 narrative various Christmas festivities on his plantation including dancing, playing music, partaking in sports, and drinking whiskey. But he also believed that the festive season served as a ‘safety valve’ for slaveholders seeking to curb any potential rebellious spirit among their enslaved people. Chillingly, too, another key date in the annual cycle of slavery occurred at New Year, when enslavers often hired out or sold enslaved people, so separating families and shattering bonds of affection they exploited for their own pecuniary advantage. Essentially, Christmas conveys in microcosm the complexities of the slave regime and the multiple forms of exploitation and manipulation by enslavers. It also provided advocates of the ‘lost cause’ mythology with dangerous ammunition with which to foster their racist, benevolent tropes about the history of enslavement.
[Image credit: Cropped version of A sketch of Douglass, from the 1845 edition of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, by Frederick Douglass. Image from Wikimedia Commons.]
- David J Anderson, ‘Nostalgia for Christmas in Postbellum Plantation Reminiscences’, Southern Studies 21, 2 (Fall-Winter 2014), 37-73
- Catherine Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Woman’s World in the Old South (1982), 177-78
- Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845), especially chapter ten
- Robert E. May, Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory (2019)
- Michael McLean, ‘Christmas on a Slave Plantation’, We’re History: America then for Americans Now, December 24 2014 http://werehistory.org/christmas-on-plantation/
- Michael W. Twitty, ‘American Slaves’ Christmas was a Respite from Bondage – and a Reinforcement of It’, The Guardian, Friday 25 December 2015