Wednesday, December 21, 2016

How Black Americans Celebrated Christmas In The Antebellum South

Edited by Azizi Powell

This pancocojams post provides extensive excerpts from two online articles about how Black Americans celebrated Christmas in the antebellum South (19th century Southern USA before the Civil War).

An excerpt from a previous pancocojams post about Jonkanoo in the Caribbean is given in the Addendum as a comparison to the information about the antebellum South's kunering traditions.

The content of this post is presented for historical and cultural purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to the authors of these articles.

..."Eliza Ripley recounts the ceremony of distributing gifts at her own plantation, along with the custom of giving everyone a dram or "drap" of whiskey, a custom also mentioned in Gone with the Wind:

"The following morning, Christmas Day, the field negroes were summoned to the back porch of the big house, where Marse Jim, after a few preliminary remarks, distributed the presents—a head handkerchief, a pocketknife, a pipe, a dress for the baby, shoes for the growing boy (his first pair, maybe), etc., etc., down the list. Each gift was received with a 'Thankee, sir,' and, perhaps, also a remark [about] its usefulness. Then after Charlotte brought forth the jug of whisky and the tin cups, and everyone had a comforting dram, they filed off to the quarters, with a week of holiday before them and a trip to town to do their little buying."
--excerpt from Social Life in Old New Orleans, Being Recollections of my Girlhood

Many planters went further than just a dram of whiskey and made alcohol available in larger quantities, especially during the Christmas dinner in the slave quarters. "Not to be drunk during the holidays was a disgrace," the famous Frederick Douglass remarked. But though alcohol was a big part of the holidays' attraction, it was by no means the only one. "Slaves lived jus' fo' Christmas to come round," recalls Fanny Berry, an ex-slave. Christmas was the time for re-uniting families and for creating new ones. Husbands that worked on neighboring plantations would come home to see the babies born in their absence for the first time. Men and women would take advantage of the holiday to get married.

In his Social Life in Old Virginia Before the War, Thomas Nelson Page recalls that no Christmas holiday would pass without at least one wedding in the slave quarters. The bride's trousseau was usually assembled with the help of the master's family, as Eliza Ripley recounts herself, and the wedding would be officiated by the master (or on occasions, a black preacher) in the mansion or down at the slave quarters.

Giving the plantation slaves some time off during the winter holiday was the sensible, let alone moral thing to do after a year of work. Not only that it allowed workers to rest and regain their strength, but it also attenuated a lot of the tension and resentment people in their situation would otherwise feel. It was Frederick Douglass who noted that "those holidays were among the most effective means in the hands of slave holders of keeping down the spirit of insurrection among the slaves."

But even so, not every planter was as moral as our saintly Colonel Openheart and not every planter was a sensible being. Many in fact were neither. Even in the last years of slavery, there were plantations on which the idea of giving slaves a day off on Christmas had never been posed. One particularly cruel master, by the name of Bennett Barrow, was in the custom of sharpening punishment for his slaves on Christmas day and taking the occasion to sanction misdemeanors from around the year. And even on the plantations where planters did allow their slaves to celebrate Christmas, it appears that four days was the maximum of time off that the workers could generally aspire to.

Nonetheless, the black inhabitants of the plantations began to recognize this free period as one of their rights and developed specific ways to celebrate it. One of the most famous, and peculiar, was the custom called Koonering (also appearing as John Koonering, John Canoeing or John Kunering) in which men dressed as animals or disguised with various masks would parade around the plantation, dancing and making noise.

Parallel to the Christmas parties of their masters, the slaves would hold their own parties in the slave quarters. A big supper was usually prepared in front of the cabins, as a counterpart to the meals served to the whites at the mansion. After the war, most of the ex-slaves remembered these meals as being the most lavish they had ever seen, with a wide variety of dishes including "roasted chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, and maybe a wild ox, varieties of vegetables, biscuits, preserves, tarts, and pies." Dancing would inevitably follow, in the sounds of fiddles and banjos and guitars, and the white masters would sometimes come down to watch as well."....

How slaves celebrated Christmas in America by Theodore R. Johnson | December 25, 2013
..."Christmas as a respite from hardship

Christmastime on southern antebellum plantations was the occasion that slaves looked forward to the most. Even while subjected to the evils of slavery and its horrors, blacks managed to find small pockets of joy in this holiday celebration. As former slave Charley Hurt told federal officials tasked to document his experiences, “Dat was one day on Massa’s place when all am happy and forgets dey am slaves.”

Based on a collection of slave narratives the government collected as part of the Federal Writer’s Project in the late 1930s, we know that Christmas was observed on nearly all such plantations, with black slaves and white slave owners often celebrating together. Black household servants and field hands were usually given a break from their daily labor lasting anywhere from two to seven days.

While some have contended the holiday spirit caused slaveowners to temporarily treat their slaves with some measure of dignity, the reality is the celebration was used to reinforce paternalism, encourage slave allegiance, and provide what Frederick Douglass described as a, “safety valve to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.”

In other words, Christmas was used to keep slaves passive and in check.

Christmas: A time of controlled plenty

Despite this, blacks found a way to make this time significant by strengthening communal bonds, reuniting families, and rejuvenating their bodies and spirits from the extremely brutal conditions of slavery.

On a typical plantation Christmas, slaves would awake and actually seek out whites because it was customary for all slaves to receive gifts. To get their presents, they played a game called Christmas Gift. When slaves first encountered whites on that morning, the first to shout “Christmas Gift!” would be the winner, to which the loser must give a gift. Of course, the slaves were always allowed to win to, because whites often refused to accept gifts from them. That would signal some measure of equality and disrupt the social order.

Later in the morning, many slave-owning families would gather all of the domestic servants and field hands together and pass out presents in a more formal manner. The children would receive candy or hand-me-down toys, and sometimes coins were thrown at them. The adults usually received gifts of necessity, such as clothes and shoes to replace their tattered garments. These gifts were how slave owners protected their investment, as proper clothing was better for a slave’s health and morale.

In many places, slaves that picked the most cotton, or had a child, were given special gifts as a reward for their increased productivity. These gift-giving rituals served as a reminder to the slaves that their owners were in total control and even their most basic needs were provided at the whim of whites....

Breaking “normal” rules at Christmas

Christmas was also one of the few times of the year when slaves were allowed to eat a wealth of fresh meat, fruits, and baked goods. Their diet usually consisted of cornmeal and salted meat, so the holiday meal was a welcome change they eagerly anticipated.

Plus, slaves were usually permitted to congregate in the house only during holiday season. These large meals with blacks and whites eating in adjacent rooms were often followed by lots of music and dancing.

Additionally, slaves were provided with just about all the alcohol they could drink. It is widely thought this was done to keep them inebriated and, thus, incapable of organizing a revolt. Francis Fedric was an escaped slave who recounted how his master used to force his slaves to drink too much. And then he’d have them gather around, all of them extremely drunk, and tell them they obviously don’t know how to be responsible with their freedom, and that they were lucky to have him as a master to keep them from ruining themselves.

Slaves create their own traditions

Christmas was also used to ensure slaves accepted the version of Christianity their masters practiced. Religion was used as a tool to keep slaves complacent and to convey the notion that God approved of their condition. But in parts of the coastal South, many slaves broke away from the Christian tradition and engaged in festivities with roots from their West African heritage in a celebration called “John Kunering.”

The primary element of the John Kunering ceremony consisted of black men dressed in rags and animal skins, playing instruments, singing, dancing, and marching from home to home to perform for masters and overseers. Those who witnessed the show were to reward the men with money and alcohol.

This ritual has the same roots as New Orleans “second line” parades and is a precursor to the modern-day performances of black marching bands and the step routines of black fraternities and sororities."...

"Jonkannu is a Christmas festivity which dates back to the days of slavery [in the Caribbean.] Processions of merrymakers, masked dancers and drummers go through the streets singing and playing fifes. The masks the dancers wear are often made to resemble the heads of cows and horses, and other characters like the Bride and Devil are mimed. During slavery, the Jonkunnu processions collected money from the onlookers to pay for their own Christmas celebrations and this song was sung to draw attention to their lack of finery and money to pay for it."...

From "Masking the Spirit in the South Atlantic World: Jankunu’s Partially‐ Hidden History", Kenneth Bilby, Center for Black Music Research, Columbia College, Chicago; 2007.
..."Kenneth Bilby wrote that "The historical evidence strongly suggests that the Jankunu festival originated in Jamaica during the 18th century – possibly earlier. From there it seems to have spread to other English speaking colonial territories where slavery was entrenched, including British Honduras (now known as Belize) and other parts of Central America, North and South Carolina, Virginia, and the Bahamas." Bilby indicates that contemporary researchers have focused "three “clusters” of West African festival traditions: 1) the yam festival of the Mmo secret society of the Igbo peoples; 2) the Egungun masquerades of the Yoruba; and, 3) the Homowo yam festival of the Ga people (Patterson 1969 [1967]: 244‐47)" as the sources for the Jonkanoo celebrations. But "the evidence suggests that the more obviously European‐derived components of the Christmas festivities – which included “actor” characters, mumming troupes, and fife and drum bands – eventually overshadowed the more obviously African‐derived components. Those aspects of the creolized Christmas celebrations generally perceived to be of African origin were heavily stigmatized, and their suppression gradually forced them underground, while those aspects understood to be of European derivation emerged as the dominant forms....) "

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  1. It's a bit depressing to think hallowed European Christmas traditions also stem from using an agricultural 'downtime' to allow the actual workers on the land some respite, and extra rations, to build up their strength again. Ready for another year of toil.

    Though it may not be so obvious in a warmer climate, in colder zones it makes perfect sense. Daylight is in short supply, so nothing's growing: the land can't be worked. It makes economic sense to give your workers a big carb-and-fat boost, to get them through the lean time to spring - when you'll really need them. Even 4000 years ago at Stonehenge they were doing this; archaeologists find the remains of huge Winter Solstice feasts.
    Whether you're a clan leader, a lord or a plantation owner, you can't work the land on your own.

    1. slam2011, when I read your comment, I was shaking my head in general agreement with the reasons for agricultural "downtime" (putting aside the issues/concerns about slavery and serfdom systems).

      But I had a visceral reaction when I read "Whether you're a clan leader"... However, I remembered that you're from the UK and "clan" doesn't have same KKK connotations in the UK as it does in the United States.

      I guess this is an example of how a word can have a different meaning or connotations depending on people's nation and/or race/ethnicity.

    2. Sorry, never even thought about Them. 'Clan' in Britain carries more association with Scottish Highlanders:)
      I was thinking of the forms of society that came before cities.

      I do sometimes wonder though how we all evolved from small groups of interrelated families into such hierarchical, divided, oppressive societies. Although I don't wonder enough to start studying historical anthropology because, hey, it's Christmas ;))

    3. Yeah I knew that you hadn't made that clan/klan association.

      I was just making a point in my Sagittarius Sun and my Virgo rising/Virgo Mars (maybe) excessively details oriented way....

      Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and Happy New Year!

  2. You too:)). Keep blogging. Roll on 2017!!

  3. Beautiful piece. This is a wonderful presentation.

    1. Thanks for your comment, olutosin olugbusi-coker!