Saturday, December 10, 2016

Christmas in the Civil War South - Silks & Satins vs Spinning Wheels

"At Christmas times during the Civil War, people in Union, South Carolina, did not have luxuries, at all. Union was only a village, & the stores did not carry much at best. Charleston was blockaded & even Spartanburg which was not much larger than Union at that time did not carry luxuries in her stores, either in food or wearing apparel.

"Those who had money could not buy, for clothing was not to be had. Everybody had to use parched wheat, parched okra seed or parched raw sweet potato chips for coffee. Not even tea came in. We used sassafras & other native herb teas both daily & at parties when the herb teas were in season. Some were good, but the substitute coffee was not. The darkies cut the potatoes up into small squares & parched them in the coffee parcher. This coffee needed no sugar, but for other things we used sorghum for sugar & it was a poor substitute. I liked the okra seed better than any of the coffee substitutes.

"Women of the South think that the cereal companies got their idea from them for making the many cereals which are on the market. Before the war, cereals like grapenuts & wheat flakes were unknown.

"We had plenty of food during the war. The woods were dense & they were full of wild animal life, & the streams were full of fish. On Christmas the dinner tables were weighted down with turkey & other wild fowls & many delicacies from the garden, field or stream. No one ever thought of not enjoying the coffee & tea. If sugar was missed it was never mentioned. Even the darkies boasted of the fine coffee & tea brewed from the herbs & wheat.

"Beautiful clothes were rare during the war. Most folks had to go back to the loom & spinning wheel of Revolutionary times. Of course the age of 1800 ushered in a new era in dress, & by the time the Confederate war came along, women wore gorgeous silks & satins, & in those days it took many yards of cloth for a dress.

"However, during the war we -- my sister & I -- did not have to resort to coarse homespun cloth for our clothes. A man, Mr. William Keenan, who built the house where Mrs. T.C. Duncan now lives, was a merchant. He went out of business & my mother bought four trunks full of silks, satins, brocades & linens from him about this time, which was at the outbreak of the war. Mother had these trunks stored in our attic in the house where Mrs. J. Clough Wallace now lives. That is the Meng house. Little girls could sew '[daintly?]' at the age of twelve in those days. They thought nothing of doing a tedious piece of needle work or hand embrodiery at that age. However, Union had a dress maker at that time, a Mrs. Frasier.

"Mother, my sister & I made our clothes from the things in those trunks. We only made now clothes at Christmas time during the war, & the materials in the trunk lasted. One thing that I had to do when I was twelve years old was to wear wool stockings. One warm Sunday I was walking to church & my stockings scratched my legs. I stopped & pulled then down below my knees. My sister told mother what I stopped for. Mother made me pull them up again & scolded me severely. She thought that I had stopped to tie the lace of my boots. My dresses came way down below my boot tops & I wore my hair below my waist. In those days people weighted themselves down with a lot of clothes.

"Two families in Union had beautiful things until near the close of the war & they were the...John Rogers family. Both Mr. Rogers & Mr. St. Amand were blocade. Mr. St. Am& used to bring his little daughter, Georgianna?], gingham that cost $50 a yard. Mrs. Frasier would make her dresses for her. Mr. John Rogers brought his wife a pair of boots from Charleston that he gave $58 for.

"Mrs. Frasier also sewed for the Rogers. Once she, Mrs. Frasier, had a dress of English homespun with the most beautiful stripes that I ever saw. Mr. Rogers brought the material to her the third Christmas of the war. Eleven years later when I was a bride I was in Philadelphia & I went in Wannamaker's & was looking at some homespun & saw a piece exactly like that that Mrs. Frasier had had in Union during the Confederate War. I have never seen a piece of homespun so beautiful since.

"During the war Union was as gay on the surface as ever. When the soldiers came home on furlough, wounded, maimed & filthy, the women took them & cleaned them up, patched their ragged clothes & had parties & dances for them. The women of Union could & did dance & sing & make merry with aching & bleeding hearts to keep up the spirits & courage of their men folks who came home so discouraged & blue in the face of defeat. The Union soldiers outnumbered ours four to one toward the last. Women in Union did everything. They never gave up & they never stopped making much with nothing.

"During the time that Sherman was on his famous march through the Carolinas, the train often went no farther down than Alston. The train's return to Union from Alston was an event when everybody in the town went to the station to hear the news. Our gate was a triple gate. There was a large gate for the carriages to go through & a pedestrain gate on each side of the carriage gate. Mother went to the gate when the train stopped. The gate was only about 50 yards from the track where the train stopped. The train still stops that near the drive entrance. The soldiers or the train crew would always tell mother the news while the engine was being refueled, which took much longer than it takes now.

"The day that Fort Sumter surrendered the train went to Alston & back. Mother went down to the gate as the train pulled in. She heard the news & came in the house rejoicing. That night everybody went to the Hix house for a dance. Mother shouted with joy when she came from the train & went into her house."

Source: Mrs. Ida Baker, E. Main St., Union, S.C. 
Interviewer: Caldwell Sims, Union, S.C. (11/10/37) 
American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940

A Slave's Christmas Memories - Molly Ammond

Ex Alabama Slave Molly Ammond:

"Us was treated fine. Our folks was quality. We had plenty somp'n t'eat, but dem slaves hadda work powerful hard though. Atter dey come home fum de fields dey was so tired dat dey go right to sleep, except when de massa had barbecues. Christmas was de big time; dere was several days to res' an' make merryin'..."

Photos & quotes from The Slave Narratives, a collection of over 20,000 pages of typewritten interviews with more than 3,500 former slaves, collected between 1929-39. Those interviewed ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation in 1865; more than 2/3 were over 80 when they were interviewed. The obvious problem is the language as reported by the interviewers. The Library of Congress explains on their website, "The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to reproduce in writing the spoken language of those interviewed."

Civil War Christmas Memories of a Confederate lady Sarah Morgan Dawson 1862 in Louisiana

A Confederate Girl's Diary: Sarah Morgan Dawson

Born into a wealthy New Orleans family, Sarah Morgan, 1842-1909, was the daughter of an influential judge who moved his family to Baton Rouge when Sarah was eight. Morgan began her diary in 1862 at age 20. Her family became divided, as some broke from regional loyalty to support the North. When Union soldiers captured New Orleans in 1862, Morgan was at first impressed with civility of the officers, but when Baton Rouge experienced the same fate, her attitude changed dramatically. Morgan and her widowed mother were forced to move back to New Orleans, where in 1864, they learned that two of her brothers died of disease in Confederate ranks. Morgan never returned to Baton Rouge. In 1874, she married Frank Dawson, a newspaper owner, who died 10 years later, leaving Morgan with two children. In her later years, Morgan moved to Paris, where she died on May 5, 1909. See Documenting the American South (, a digital publishing initiative of the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Yesterday, being a beautiful day, I was carried down in honor of Christmas, to meet Captain Fenner and Mr. Duggan who were to dine with us...We had an exquisite Christmas gift the night before, a magnificent serenade, a compliment from Colonel Breaux...While all goes on merrily, another rap comes, and enter Santa Claus, dressed in the old uniform of the Mexican War, with a tremendous cocked hat, and preposterous beard of false hair... It was a device of the General's, which took us all by surprise. Santa Claus passes slowly around the circle, and pausing before each lady, draws from his basket a cake which he presents with a bow, while to each gentleman he presents a wineglass replenished from a most suspicious-looking black bottle which also reposes there. Leaving us all wonder and laughter, Santa Claus retires with a basket much lighter than it had been at his entrance. . .Then follow refreshments, and more and more talk and laughter, until the clock strikes twelve, when all these ghosts bid a hearty good-night and retire.

A Slave's Christmas Memories - Charlotte Beverly

Charlotte Beverly was born a slave. She served Captain Pankey's wife, in Montgomery County, Texas. She has lived most of her life within a radius of 60 miles from Houston:

"Every year they have big Christmas dinner and ham and turkey and allus feed us good. Us have Christmas party and sing songs. That was sweet music."

Photos & quotes from The Slave Narratives, a collection of over 20,000 pages of typewritten interviews with more than 3,500 former slaves, collected between 1929-39. Those interviewed ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation in 1865; more than 2/3 were over 80 when they were interviewed. The obvious problem is the language as reported by the interviewers. The Library of Congress explains on their website, "The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to reproduce in writing the spoken language of those interviewed."

Civil War Reconstruction Christmas Memories of Mary Ames 1865

From A New England Woman's Diary in Dixie in 1865

This book relates the experience of two northern white women, Mary Ames, 1832-1903, and Emily Bliss, who were employed in 1865 as teachers by the Freedmen's Bureau and sent to South Carolina to open a school for former slaves. The account is told through excerpts from the diary of Mary Ames. It follows the women's journey to Edisto Island, South Carolina, formerly a region of cotton plantations, where many liberated slaves had been settled by the Reconstruction government. Ames tells of the poor living conditions of the former slaves, and the widespread decay and squalor of the homes on the island--including the abandoned plantation house in which she and her companion settled. Despite inconveniences such as a leaky roof, insects, snakes, and inconsistent rations, the women managed to establish a school with an enrollment of well over 100 students, both children and adults.

The women remained on the island for a little over a year. Ames' diary entries tell of her dealings with the former slaves, and document their social and religious life. She also tells of the difficulties of day-to-day life in the Reconstruction South, including the lack of food, water, and other necessary supplies. By May of 1866, the Freedmen's Bureau announced that they would no longer support the school. The women closed the school in July, then returned to Massachusetts in September, a little more than a year after they had arrived. See Documenting the American South (, a digital publishing initiative of the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Christmas, 1865
All of us at headquarters were invited to dine on Christmas with Captain and Mrs. Towles, and their friends on Wadmelaw Island. It was a foggy morning, and we were not in the best of spirits. Four of the soldiers rowed us in a pontoon. The dinner of wild turkey, etc., was excellent. The ladies who were asked to meet us, and whom we liked, had been sent out by the Philadelphia Society. Captain Towles had got a fiddle and an old negro to play it, and insisted upon our dancing, because it was Christmas and we must be merry. It was bad music and worse dancing, but we danced ourselves into a great heat and great good spirits. At seven we started for home...

A Slave's Christmas Memories - Ellen Butler

Ellen Butler was born a slave to Richmond Butler, near Whiska Chitte, in the northern part of Calacasieu Parish (now a part of Beau Regard Parish), in Louisiana:

"On Christmas time they give us a meal. I 'member that. I don't 'member no other holidays."

Photos & quotes from The Slave Narratives, a collection of over 20,000 pages of typewritten interviews with more than 3,500 former slaves, collected between 1929-39. Those interviewed ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation in 1865; more than 2/3 were over 80 when they were interviewed. The obvious problem is the language as reported by the interviewers. The Library of Congress explains on their website, "The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to reproduce in writing the spoken language of those interviewed."

Civil War Christmas Memories of a Confederate lady Dolly Sumner Lunt 1864 in Georgia

A Woman's Wartime Journal: an Account of the Passage over Georgia's Plantation of Sherman's Army on the March to the Sea, as Recorded in the Diary of Dolly Sumner Lunt (Mrs. Thomas Burge) 

Dolly Lunt Burge, 1817-1891, was born in Maine in 1817. As a young woman, moved from Maine to Georgia with her physician husband in the 1840s. By the time she began her diary at age thirty, Dolly had lost her husband and her only living child to illness. A devout and self-sufficient schoolteacher, she soon married again, to Thomas Burge, a planter and widowed father of four. In 1855, she gave birth to their daughter, Sarah, called Sadai. Upon her second husband's death in 1858, Dolly independently ran the plantation, located in Mansfield. She remained there during the Civil War, witnessing Sherman's march through the area. Dolly married a final time, in 1866, to Rev. William Parks, a prominent Methodist minister. Dolly's diary is filled with news about her daughter, her struggles, and her slaves. See Documenting the American South (, a digital publishing initiative of the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

DECEMBER 24, 1864.
This has usually been a very busy day with me, preparing for Christmas not only for my own tables, but for gifts for my servants. Now how changed! No confectionery, cakes, or pies can I have. We are all sad; no loud, jovial laugh from our boys is heard. Christmas Eve, which has ever been gaily celebrated here, which has witnessed the popping of fire-crackers [the Southern custom of celebrating Christmas with fireworks] and the hanging up of stockings, is an occasion now of sadness and gloom. I have nothing even to put in Sadai's stocking, which hangs so invitingly for Santa Claus. How disappointed she will be in the morning, though I have explained to her why he cannot come. Poor children! Why must the innocent suffer with the guilty?

DECEMBER 25, 1864.
Sadai jumped out of bed very early this morning to feel in her stocking. She could not believe but that there would be something in it. Finding nothing, she crept back into bed, pulled the cover over her face, and I soon heard her sobbing. The little negroes all came in: "Christmas gift, mist'ess! Christmas gift, mist'ess!" I pulled the cover over my face and was soon mingling my tears with Sadai's.

A Slave's Christmas Memories - Martha Bradley

Martha Bradley was a slave to Dr. Lucas of Mt. Meigs, Alabama, long before the War between the States:

"But Marster Lucas gin us big times on Christmas and July. Us'd have big dinners and all the lemonade us could drink. The dinner'd be spread out on de ground an' all the niggers would stand roun' and eat all dey wanted. What was lef' us'd take it to our cabins. Nancy Lucas was de cook fer ever'body...In de winter time us'd quilt; jes' go from one house to anudder in de quarter. Us'd weave all our ever'day clothes, but Marster Lucas'd go to Mobile ever' July and Christmas and git our Sunday clothes, git us dresses and shoes and we'd sho be proud of 'em."

Photos & quotes from The Slave Narratives, a collection of over 20,000 pages of typewritten interviews with more than 3,500 former slaves, collected between 1929-39. Those interviewed ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation in 1865; more than 2/3 were over 80 when they were interviewed. The obvious problem is the language as reported by the interviewers. The Library of Congress explains on their website, "The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to reproduce in writing the spoken language of those interviewed."

Civil War Chirstmas Memories of a Confederate lady Julia Johnson Fisher of Georgia


Julia Johnson Fisher, 1814-1885, was a native of Massachusetts, living with her husband, William Fisher (1788-1878), and her children in an isolated area in Camden County, Georgia, near the Florida border. The diary contains comments on conditions and incidents of daily life, family and neighborhood news, personal thoughts, and reports of military activity in the region. See Documenting the American South (, a digital publishing initiative of the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

On Christmas day we fared sumptuously. Mrs. Lynn dined with us and furnished the turkey. We had some chickens and a piece of fresh pork. Gussie had been off ten miles and brought oysters--so we had an oyster stew and chicken salad, minus the greens, potatoes and rice. The turkey was dressed with corn bread. Our dessert was a corn meal pudding wet with water, enriched with bottled huckleberries and pork fat; sauce made of borrowed syrup and flour--it was excellent, how we did relish it! but we talked of the good pies and bread and cakes that linger in remembrance, and the nuts and apples that pass around so freely in that land of plenty. It is hard to be so entirely deprived of them but we try to console ourselves with the fact that we enjoy better health and appetites. We are always hungry-- hungry the year round, but do not grow fat.

A Slave's Christmas Memories - Mary Reynold

Mary Reynolds was born in slavery to the Kilpatrick family in Black River, Louisiana:

"They give all the niggers fresh meat on Christmas and a plug tobacco all round. The highes' cotton picker gits a suit of clothes and all the women what had twins that year gits a outfittin' of clothes for the twins and a double, warm blanket."

Photos & quotes from The Slave Narratives, a collection of over 20,000 pages of typewritten interviews with more than 3,500 former slaves, collected between 1929-39. Those interviewed ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation in 1865; more than 2/3 were over 80 when they were interviewed. The obvious problem is the language as reported by the interviewers. The Library of Congress explains on their website, "The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to reproduce in writing the spoken language of those interviewed."

Civil War Christmas Memories of a Confederate lady Mary Jeffreys Bethell 1861-1862 in North Carolina

Diary of Mary Jeffreys Bethell, January 1st 1861 - Dec. 1865:

Mary Jeffreys Bethell, born in 1821, was the daughter of Phereba Hinton Jeffreys and farmer and Methodist preacher George Washington Jeffreys (1794-1849). She married William D. Bethell in 1840 and spent most of her life in Rockingham County, North Carolina. Mary Jeffreys Bethell's diary has infrequent entries beginning on 1 January 1853 and ending 6 January 1873. Diary entries discuss Bethell's home and neighbors; her religious activities; the activities of her children, several of whom died young, and children in the Torrien family, whom Bethell referred to as nieces and nephews and who lived in the Bethell household for many years. There are frequent mention of Bethell's journeys with her husband to Louisiana, Tennessee, and Arkansas, and thoughts of moving the family out of North Carolina. During the Civil War, the diary also includes the activities of sons Willie and George in the Confederate Army, including George's adventures with the 44th North Carolina Regiment and his capture and imprisonment at Johnson Island. Bethell's husband joined the Army in 1864, after which Bethell wrote of the difficulties she endured in her husband's absence, including the departure of their slaves. See Documenting the American South (, a digital publishing initiative of the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

December 25, 1861
This is Christmas day, a beautiful day but very cold, how different this Christmas from last, now our Country is filled with armies to defend our country from the Northern army, many bloody battles have been fought, hundreds have been killed on both sides, and a great many soldiers have died in the camp from disease and want of attention while sick, it is sad to contemplate, perhaps the Lord is chastising his church, I believe he permits it for our good.I have two sons in the army, they have enjoyed fine health, the Lord has blessed them, I thank and praise him for it. I hope and pray that they may get home safe to my arms.

December 25, 1862

This is Christmas day, a most lovely day for the season, it is almost like Spring. I hope 'tis a token of good, that the Lord is going to bless us if it is his will. I hope the war will soon close and that we may have peace.

Civil War Christmas Memories of a Confederate lady Sarah Lois Wadley 1860-1864 of Louisiana

Diary of Sarah Lois Wadley August 8, 1859 - May 15, 1865

Sarah Lois Wadley, 1844-1920, was the daughter of William Morrill Wadley (c1812-1882) and Rebecca Barnard Everingham Wadley (fl. 1840-1884) and lived with her family in homes near Amite in Tangipahoa Parish, Monroe and Oakland in Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, and near Macon, Georgia. Entries in the diary document in detail opinions and events in the life of an articulate and alert young woman just before and during the Civil War. Early entries include a detailed description of a family trip from Amite, Louisiana, to visit relatives in New Hampshire. Entries during the war describe reactions to war news; life in the vicinity of Monroe, Oakland, and Homer, Louisiana, including comments on freedmen and federal troops; and some activities of Sarah's father, William Morrill Wadley, who managed the Vicksburg, Shreveport and Texas Railroad and served as Confederate superintendent of railroads. See Documenting the American South (, a digital publishing initiative of the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Tuesday, Dec. 25th / 1860.
It is Christmas day, the great festival of the year, but this Christmas is not very merry to us, nor, I dare say, to many others in This country.

Dr. Lord said last Sunday that we ought to let the great wave of political troubles roll by for a while, and try and forget the exigencies of the times during Christmas, the anniversary of that day in which rose the sun of Righteousness; but this is very hard to do. We can have no tangible expressions of merry making, which though far less dignified than a deep Christian rejoicing goes very far towards promoting universal thankfulness and love in the household...

Uncle Moses and Aunt Jane are coming to dine with us today... We spent Christmas day very quietly, our only extra amusement was going to the Christmas tree at the Church.


We had a very pleasant Christmas; the day after Christmas day, Miss Mary and I fixed up a little pine tree as a Christmas tree, we had no costly gifts, but a few sugar plums in lace bags, and some home made Cornucopias with two or three little wax candles made the tree very attractive to the children. Father had a few fire works too which he had forgot to bring home Christmas eve, and we were delighted looking at them.

The negroes had a supper and dance up at the place and we all walked up to see them, Father was very much pleased to see them dance, and as their house was small and smoky so that we could not look on with any pleasure, Father had our long room cleared out and had them go in there and dance. We stayed looking at them till nine o'clock, and then walked home again.


Friday night I had a most pleasant surprise. Father came home and said that Eldridge had a paper box on the waggon--marked for me... When it was opened there lay a very pretty chair made of velvet, ornamented with ribbon and straw and the seat of which, being raised, showed a space nicely lined with flannel, it was a fancy jewelry box from Miss Valeria, she had it made for a Christmas present...Father left for New Orleans yesterday, we expect him back Saturday night.

Dec. 25th/ 1862
Christmas night, it has been a sad Christmas day to us Father was not here, we received a dispatch Tuesday night saying that he must return to Richmond before coming home, it was a great disappointment, since we had at least hoped that he would arrive Christmas eve. Today has seemed just like Sunday, while at dinner we received some papers one of which contained a list of the wounded...

Friday--Dec. 26th...

The negroes are busy barbecueing and cooking for their party tonight, they may have to start away before day, but we shall let enjoy themselves while they can.

We have been watching the negroes dancing for the last two hours, Mother had the partition taken down in our old house so that they have quite a long ball room, we can sit on the piazza and look into it. I hear now the sounds of fiddle, tambourine and "bones" mingled with the shuffling and pounding of feet. Mr. Axley is fiddling for them, they are having a merry time, thoughtless creatures, they think not of the morrow.  I am sad, very sad, tonight, last Christmas Father watched their dancing with us; where is he now? where shall we all be next Christmas...

Christmas week, 1863

There is to be a ball in Monroe Christmas eve, I have received an invitation and yesterday Mrs. McGuire sent to urge me to go with her, but I am far from wishing to participate in such gaiety. I shall go to Mrs. DeLary's concert because Miss Mary is to play and sing, otherwise I should not think of it. It is to be on next Monday night...

Wednesday, Dec. 30th. 1863...The day before Christmas was busy cooking all day, and this made us feel a little like Christmas was coming. Father and Miss Mary went into town that day and brought out some candy and pecans with which we filled the children's stockings, they woke up before day in the morning and were highly delighted...we had our stockings hung up and candy in them, and Miss Mary scratched the chimney bask in imitation of Santa Claus' carriage wheel tracks, Georgie came in our room in the morning and related with a wondering air how he could see the marks of Santa Claus feet on Mother's room chimney, we then showed him ours and he was strengthened in his belief.

After they were dressed, the children ran out to distribute candy among the little negroes and before breakfast all had disappeared. When our late breakfast was over, we made egg nogg for the negroes, who gathered round the back door highly delighted, there were many of them, for most of the railroad negroes were here. When they had all had a glass round, Mother filled her great punch bowl again for the "white folks..."  We had singing and playing for an hour or more in the evening, and then closed the day with a few pages from Homer's Iliad...

Altogether, our Christmas day was better than the last, principally because Father was here, but yet it was by no means merry, as it could not be now when our prospects are so uncertain and gloomy.


All Christmas day I kept saying over and over "it is Christmas" to keep myself in mind of it. It was very much like any other Sunday, only sometimes we would hear a "Merry Christmas," which sounded hollow, like the echo of past times; we had an egg nogg in the morning but drank it with only an occasional attempt at hilarity...we had a very fine dinner...In the evening we had some ice cream which the children malted at the fire, and so the day passed. I had an hour of pleasure when I read the Christmas service and beautiful Psalms and lessons and again in the evening when Miss May and I contemplated the glories of the setting sun.

A Slave's Christmas Memories - Emma Taylor

Emma Taylor was born a slave of the Greer family, in Mississippi. She and her mother later were sold to a Texan:

"Sometimes de niggers danced and played de fiddle and us chillen played in de yard. We could stay up all night dem times, but had to work next day, and hardly ever stayed up all night. Dat durin' harvest or at Christmas time."

Photos & quotes from The Slave Narratives, a collection of over 20,000 pages of typewritten interviews with more than 3,500 former slaves, collected between 1929-39. Those interviewed ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation in 1865; more than 2/3 were over 80 when they were interviewed. The obvious problem is the language as reported by the interviewers. The Library of Congress explains on their website, "The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to reproduce in writing the spoken language of those interviewed."

Civil War Christmas Memories of a Confederate lady Meta Morris Grimball 1862 in South Carolina

Journal of Meta Morris Grimball: South Carolina, December 1860-February 1866: At the Grove Plantation, St. Paul's Parish, South Carolina

Margaret Ann "Meta" Morris Grimball, 1810-1881, was a descendent of Lewis Morris, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1830, she married John Berkley Grimball (1800-1892), who owned a rice plantation near Adam's Run, South Carolina. They had nine children, whom they brought up at the plantation and in Charleston. During the Civil War, the family sought safety in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The plantation was confiscated by federal troops but returned to the family in 1866. The Grimballs were unable to continue mortgage payments and lost the house in 1870. Meta kept a diary before, during, and immediately after the Civil War. In it she records the major events of the day and their effect on her family's life. Grimball juxtaposes common domestic concerns with larger issues related to the Civil War, including slavery, personal safety, and religion. See Documenting the American South (, a digital publishing initiative of the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Daughter Elizabeth had a charming Christmas day...She was invited to spend the day with Mrs Dawkins, at Union, where there is a very nice Episcopal Church...There was a plentiful breakfast on their arrival, and then the Christmas tree for the children, with little gifts made by kind hands. After the tree they practised the Church Music, then went to Church, where E. took her place in the Choir, they returned to Mrs D's, had a real Christmas dinner...We went to hear Mr Whiteford Smith preach in the morning, had a fine sermon...came home to a dinner of Roast pig and a pudding, which we all enjoyed...In the evening short cake, and a great deal of pleasant talk. - Just now we have some sausages, and I am glad Mr Grimball is with us to enjoy them.

Son Berkley writes that his Christmas passed very pleasantly, they had a fine breakfast, of Opossum, Partridges, corn bread, & butter. A dinner with company. - In the Evening Theatricals a burlesque on the Ghost Scene in Hamlet. The dying scene of Lady Macbeth, and then a piece called the stolen pig, a man comes to the Captain of the Company complaining of having lost a pig, & says his negro, Cuffy, saw who took it. The Court Martial is arranged and the whole company called out, and Cuffy is made to point to the man who stole the pig. The part of the negro is played by Simons; and to the great delight of the negroes present, composed of teamsters, & servants there was music between the acts. Berkley lead the Orchestra, which consisted of 2 Violins, a triangle, bones, a drum. The end of the play is that the man is sentenced to death, and dies like Othello.

A Slave's Christmas Memories - Hannah Crasson

Hannah Crasson was born a slave on John William Walton's plantation 4 miles from Garner and 13 miles from Raleigh, in Wake County, North Carolina:

"Dey gave us Christmas and other holidays. Den dey, de men, would go to see dere wives. Some of the men's wives belong to other masters on other plantations. We had corn shuckin's at night, and candy pullin's. Sometimes we had quiltings and dances."

Photos & quotes from The Slave Narratives, a collection of over 20,000 pages of typewritten interviews with more than 3,500 former slaves, collected between 1929-39. Those interviewed ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation in 1865; more than 2/3 were over 80 when they were interviewed. The obvious problem is the language as reported by the interviewers. The Library of Congress explains on their website, "The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to reproduce in writing the spoken language of those interviewed."

Civil War Christmas Memories of a Confederate lady Mary Chestnut 1863-64 in South Carolina

Mary Chestnut's A Diary From Dixie:

Mary Boykin Miller Chesnut, 1823-1886, was born in Stateburg, South Carolina, in the High Hills of Santee, to Mary Boykin and her husband, Stephen Decatur Miller. Her father had served as a U.S. Representative (1817-19). He later became the governor of South Carolina (1829-30) and a U.S. Senator (1831-31). She was educated in Charleston at Mme. Talvande's French School for Young Ladies, where she became fluent in French and German and received a strong education. On April 23, 1840, Mary Boykin Miller married James Chesnut, Jr., a lawyer and politician eight years her senior. Like her father, he became a U.S. Senator from South Carolina and served from 1858 until South Carolina's secession from the Union in 1860. Once the Civil War broke out, James Chesnut, Jr. became an aide to President Jefferson Davis and a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. Mary Boykin Chestnut began her diary on February 15, 1861, and ended it on August 2, 1865. During much of that time she lived at Mulberry Plantation in Camden, South Carolina, in the midst of thousands of acres of plantation and woodland but with many visitors. The diary was of her impression of events as they unfolded during the Civil War. She analyzed the changing political fortunes of the South and its various classes. She also portrayed southern society and the mixed roles of men and women, and complex situations related to slavery. See Documenting the American South (, a digital publishing initiative of the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Christmas Day, 1863.
Yesterday dined with the Prestons. Wore one of my handsomest Paris dresses (from Paris before the war). Three magnificent Kentucky generals were present, with Senator Orr from South Carolina, and Mr. Miles...Others dropped in after dinner; some without arms, some without legs; von Borcke, who can not speak because of a wound in his throat...Poor fellows, they laugh at wounds. "And they yet can show many a scar." We had for dinner oyster soup, besides roast mutton, ham, boned turkey, wild duck, partridge, plum pudding, sauterne, burgundy, sherry, and Madeira. There is life in the old land yet!

1864 December 27th.
Oh, why did we go to Camden? The very dismalest Christmas overtook us there. Miss Rhett went with us - a brilliant woman and very agreeable. "The world, you know, is composed," said she, "of men, women, and Rhetts" (see Lady Montagu). Now, we feel that if we are to lose our negroes, we would as soon see Sherman free them as the Confederate Government; freeing negroes is the last Confederate Government craze. We are a little too slow about it; that is all.

A Slave's Christmas Memories - Lou Williams

Lou Williams was born in southern Maryland in 1829. She and her family were slaves of Abram and Kitty Williams, and Lou served as nursemaid to her master's children from the age of eight until after the Civil War. She then went to Louisiana where she worked as a cook for several years before moving to San Angelo, Texas:

"We allus gits Saturday evenin' off to wash our clothes and sometime we has dances Saturday night...We has corn shuckin's and big suppers and on Christmas day massa buys us de present, most times shoes, 'cause we didn't have any shoes."

Photos & quotes from The Slave Narratives, a collection of over 20,000 pages of typewritten interviews with more than 3,500 former slaves, collected between 1929-39. Those interviewed ranged in age from 1 to 50 at the time of emancipation in 1865; more than 2/3 were over 80 when they were interviewed. The obvious problem is the language as reported by the interviewers. The Library of Congress explains on their website, "The narratives usually involve some attempt by the interviewers to reproduce in writing the spoken language of those interviewed."

Henry Bibb escapes slavery on Christmas 1837

Escaping Slavery on Christmas in 1837

The Documenting the American South project at the University of North Carolina tells us that Henry Bibb (1815-1854) was born in Shelby County, Kentucky. His father was state senator James Bibb, and his mother was a slave named Mildred Jackson who worked for Willard Gatewood. Henry Bibb was married twice, once before his escape to a slave named Malinda, and again after his escape to a woman named Mary Miles. In 1842, Bibb began lecturing on slavery and became a well known African American activist. In 1849 he published his autobiography, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave. Bibb helped create Canada's first black newspaper, Voice of the Fugitive a publication that worked to convince African slaves to settle in Canada. He was also the founding director of a Canadian black colonization project, the Refugee Home Society. He died in 1854.

In the fall or winter of 1837 I formed a resolution that I would escape, if possible, to Canada, for my Liberty. I commenced from that hour making preparations for the dangerous experiment of breaking the chains that bound me as a slave. My preparation for this voyage consisted in the accumulation of a little money, perhaps not exceeding two dollars and fifty cents, and a suit which I had never been seen or known to wear before; this last was to avoid detection.

On the twenty-fifth of December, 1837, my long anticipated time had arrived when I was to put into operation my former resolution, which was to bolt for Liberty or consent to die a Slave. I acted upon the former, although I confess it to be one of the most self-denying acts of my whole life, to take leave of an affectionate wife, who stood before me on my departure with dear little Frances in her arms, and with tears of sorrow in her eyes as she bid me a long farewell. It required all the moral courage that I was master of to suppress my feeling while taking leave of my little family.

Had Malinda known my intention at that time, it would not have been possible for me to have got away, and I might have this day been a slave. Notwithstanding every inducement was held out to me to run away if I would be free, and the voice of liberty was thundering in my very soul, "Be free, oh, man! be free," I was struggling against a thousand obstacles which had clustered around my mind to bind my wounded spirit still in the dark prison of mental degradation. My strong attachments to friends and relatives, with all the love of home and birth-place which is so natural among the human family, twined about my heart and were hard to break away from. And withal, the fear of being pursued with guns and blood-hounds, and of being killed, or captured and taken to the extreme South, to linger out my days in hopeless bondage on some cotton or sugar plantation, all combined to deter me. But I had counted the cost, and was fully prepared to make the sacrifice. The time for fulfilling my pledge was then at hand. I must forsake friends and neighbors, wife and child, or consent to live and die a slave.

By the permission of my keeper, I started out to work for myself on Christmas. I went to the Ohio River, which was but a short distance from Bedford. My excuse for wanting to go there was to get work. High wages were offered for hands to work in a slaughter-house. But in place of my going to work there, according to promise, when I arrived at the river I managed to find a conveyance to cross over into a free state. I was landed in the village of Madison, Indiana, where steamboats were landing every day and night, passing up and down the river, which afforded me a good opportunity of getting a boat passage to Cincinnati. My anticipation being worked up to the highest pitch, no sooner was the curtain of night dropped over the village, than I secreted myself where no one could see me, and changed my suit ready for the passage. Soon I heard the welcome sound of a Steamboat coming up the river Ohio, which was soon to waft me beyond the limits of the human slave markets of Kentucky. When the boat had landed at Madison, notwithstanding my strong desire to get off, my heart trembled within me in view of the great danger to which I was exposed in taking passage on board of a Southern Steamboat; hence before I took passage, I kneeled down before the Great I Am, and prayed for his aid and protection, which He bountifully bestowed even beyond my expectation; for I felt myself to be unworthy. I then stept boldly on the deck of this splendid swift-running Steamer, bound for the city of Cincinnati. This being the first voyage, that I had ever taken on board of a Steamboat, I was filled with fear and excitement, knowing that I was surrounded by the vilest enemies of God and man, liable to be seized and bound hand and foot by any white man, and taken back into captivity. But I crowded myself back from the light among the deck passengers, where it would be difficult to distinguish me from a white man. Every time during the night that the mate came round with a light after the hands, I was afraid he would see I was a colored man, and take me up; hence I kept from the light as much as possible. Some, men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil; but this was not the case with myself; it was to avoid detection in doing right. This was one of the instances of my adventures that my affinity with the Anglo-Saxon race, and even slaveholders, worked well for my escape. But no thanks to them for it. While in their midst they have not only robbed me of my labor and liberty, but they have almost entirely robbed me of my dark complexion. Being so near the color of a slaveholder, they could not, or did not find me out that night among the white passengers. There was one of the deck hands on board called out on his watch, whose hammock was swinging up near by me. I asked him if he would let me lie in it. He said if I would pay him twenty-five cents that I might lie in it until day. I readily paid him the price and got into the hammock. No one could see my face to know whether I was white or colored, while I was in the hammock; but I never closed eyes for sleep that night. I had often heard explosions on board of Steamboats; and every time the boat landed, and blowed off steam, I was afraid the boilers had bursted and we should all be killed; but I lived through the night amid the many dangers to which I was exposed. I still maintained my position in the hammock, until the next morning about 8 o'clock, when I heard the passengers saying the boat was near Cincinnati; and by this time I supposed that the attention of the people would be turned to the city, and I might pass off unnoticed.

There were no questions asked me while on board the boat. The boat landed about 9 o'clock in the morning in Cincinnati, and I waited until after most of the passengers had gone off of the boat; I then walked as gracefully up street as if I was not running away, until I had got pretty well up Broadway. My object was to go to Canada, but having no knowledge of the road, it was necessary for me to make some inquiry before I left the city. I was afraid to ask a white person, and I could see no colored person to ask. But fortunately for me I found a company of little boys at play in the street, and through these little boys, by asking them indirect questions, I found the residence of a colored man.

        "Boys, can you tell me where that old colored man lives who saws wood, and works at jobs around the streets?"

        "What is his name?" said one of the boys,

        "I forget."

        "Is it old Job Dundy?"

        "Is Dundy a colored man?"

        "Yes, sir."

        "That is the very man I am looking for; will you show me, where he lives?"

        "Yes," said the little boy, and pointed me out the house.

Mr. D. invited me in, and I found him to be a true friend. He asked me if I was a slave from Kentucky, and if I ever intended to go back into slavery? Not knowing yet whether he was truly in favor of slaves running away, I told him that I had just come over to spend my christmas holydays, and that I was going back. His reply was, "my son, I would never go back if I was in your place; you have a right to your liberty.' I then asked him how I should get my freedom? He referred me to Canada, over which waved freedom's flag, defended by the British Government, upon whose soil there cannot be the foot print of a slave.

He then commenced telling me of the facilities for my escape to Canada; of the Abolitionists; of the Abolition Societies, and of their fidelity to the cause of suffering humanity. This was the first time in my life that ever I had heard of such people being in existence as the Abolitionists. I supposed that they were a different race of people. He conducted me to the house of one of these warm-hearted friends of God and the slave. I found him willing to aid a poor fugitive on his way to Canada, even to the dividing of the last cent, or morsel of bread if necessary.

Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself. With an Introduction by Lucius C. Matlack.
Written by Himself.
 With an Introduction by Lucius C. Matlack.
 207 p., 18 ill.  New York.  Published by the Author; 5 Spruce Street.  1849.

Civil War Christmas Memories of Confederate wife Anita Dwyers Withers in Virginia


A devout Roman Catholic, Anita Dwyer Withers, wife of a United States and Confederate army officer, lived at her home in San Antonio, Texas, and briefly in Washington, D.C., before the Civil War, and in Richmond, Virginia, during the war, before returning to Texas in 1865. The diary, 4 May 1860-18 June 1865, mainly records her life in the Confederate capital, her concerns for her husband, John (d. 1892) and children, social visits, the Catholic Church, news from battles, rumors and threats of approaching federal troops, and temporary visits away from the city. See Documenting the American South (, a digital publishing initiative of the University Library at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Christmas Day 25th. [Dec.] Wednesday. [1861]
We went to Church at 10 O'clock. Father McMullen preached a very good sermon. After Church we all went to Mr. John Purcell's and took a glass of egg-nog, and from there we went to see the Sisters, Mrs. Randolph took us ladies in her carriage. (The Stable of Bethlehem was beautiful.) The little Orphans sang for us. About five we walked up to Mr. Menard's to dine--we returned about nine..."

"Christmas day I went to Church at half past ten. My Husband was busy and could not go--he had to attend to every thing for Mrs. Whiting, her husband had to be buried the same afternoon--It was the saddest Christmas I ever spent--no person dined out, though many were invited. We were to have dined at Mr. John Purcell's."

"On Christmas day Col. Williams & his family, Capt. Wade & Capt. Myers & wife dined with us. We had a mighty nice dinner--cake, Jelly, Blanc Mange and many nice things."

Advent Traditions - The Nativity Fast of the Orthodox Christian Churches

Some people fast (don't eat anything) during advent to help them concentrate on preparing to celebrate Jesus's coming. In many Orthodox & Eastern Catholics Churches, Advent lasts for 40 days and starts on November 15th & is also called the Nativity Fast.The Nativity Fast is a period of abstinence and penance practiced by the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, & Eastern Catholic Churches, in preparation for the Nativity of Christ, (December 25). The corresponding Western season of preparation for Christmas, which also has been called the Nativity Fast & St. Martin's Lent, has taken the name of Advent. The Eastern fast runs for 40 days instead of four (Roman rite) or six weeks (Ambrosian rite) & thematically focuses on proclamation & glorification of the Incarnation of God, whereas the Western Advent focuses on the two comings (or advents) of Jesus Christ: his birth & his Second Coming or Parousia.

Celebrated during the Nativity Fast.  Three Young Men in the Fiery Furnace, celebrated during the Nativity Fast as a reminder of the grace acquired through fasting (15C icon of the Novgorod school). Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego are the 3 pious Jewish youths thrown into a "fiery furnace" by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon.

The Byzantine fast is observed from November 15 to December 24, inclusively. These dates apply to those Orthodox Churches which use the Revised Julian calendar, which currently matches the Gregorian calendar. For those Eastern Orthodox Churches which still follow the Julian calendar (Churches of Russia, Georgia, Serbia, Ukraine, Macedonia, Mount Athos & Jerusalem), the Winter Lent does not begin until November 28 (Gregorian) which coincides with November 15 on the Julian calendar. The Ancient Church of the East fasts dawn til dusk from the 1st December until the 25th of December on the Gregorian calendar.

Sometimes the fast is called Philip's Fast (or the Philippian Fast), as it traditionally begins on the day following the Feast of St. Philip the Apostle (November 14). Some churches, such as the Melkite Greek Catholic Church, have abbreviated the fast to start on December 10, following the Feast of the Conception by Saint Anne of the Most Holy Theotokos.

Through the discipline of fasting, practiced with humility & repentance, it is believed that by learning to temper the body's primary desire for food, that other worldly desires can be more easily tempered as well. Through this practice one is better enabled to draw closer to God in the hope of becoming more Christ-like. While the fast influences the body, it is important to note that emphasis is placed on the spiritual facet of the fast rather than mere physical deprivation. Orthodox theology sees a synthesis between the body & the soul, so what happens to one affects the other. The church teaches that it is not enough to fast from food; one must also fast from anger, greed & covetousness. In addition to fasting, almsgiving is also emphasized.

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the fast traditionally entails fasting from red meat, poultry, meat products, eggs, dairy products, fish, oil, & wine. Fish, wine & oil are allowed on Saturdays & Sundays, & oil & wine are allowed on Tuesdays & Thursdays, except in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.

The fasting rules permit fish, &/or wine & oil on certain feast days that occur during the course of the fast: Evangelist Matthew (November 16), Apostle Andrew (November 30), Great-martyr Barbara (December 4), St. Nicholas (December 6), St. Spiridon & St. Herman (December 12), St. Ignatius (December 20), etc. 

Orthodox persons who are ill, the very young or elderly, & nursing mothers are exempt from fasting. Each individual is expected to confer with their confessor regarding any exemptions from the fasting rules, but should never place themselves in physical danger.

There has been some ambiguity about the restriction of fish, whether it means the allowance of invertebrate fish or all fish. Often, even on days when fish is not allowed, shellfish may be consumed. More detailed guidelines vary by jurisdiction, but the rules strictly state that from the December 20 to December 24 (inclusively), no fish may be eaten.

The Eve of Nativity (December 24) is a strict fast day, called Paramony (lit. "preparation"), on which no solid food should be eaten until the first star is seen in the evening sky (or at the very least, until after the Vesperal Divine Liturgy that day). If Paramony falls on a Saturday or Sunday, the day is not observed as a strict fast, but a meal with wine & oil is allowed after the Divine Liturgy, which would be celebrated in the morning.

In some places, the services on weekdays during the fast are similar to the services during Great Lent (with some variations). Many churches & monasteries in the Russian tradition will perform the Lenten services on at least the first day of the Nativity Fast. Often the hangings in the church will be changed to a somber, Lenten color.

The Entry of the Virgin Mary into the Temple, the Great Feast which falls during the course of the Nativity Fast (16C Russian icon).

During the course of the fast, a number of feast days celebrate those Old Testament prophets who prophesied the Incarnation; for instance: Obadiah (November 19), Nahum (December 1), Habbakuk (December 2), Zephaniah (December 3), Haggai (December 16), Daniel & the Three Holy Youths (December 17). These last are significant not only because of their perseverance in fasting, but also because their preservation unharmed in the midst of the fiery furnace is interpreted as being symbolic of the Incarnation—the Virgin Mary conceived God the Word in her womb without being consumed by the fire of the Godhead.

As is true of all of the four Orthodox fasts, a Great Feast falls during the course of the fast; in this case, the Entry of the Theotokos (November 21). After the apodosis (leave-taking) of that feast, hymns of the Nativity are chanted on Sundays & higher-ranking feast days.

The liturgical Forefeast of the Nativity begins on December 20, & concludes with the Paramony on December 24. During this time hymns of the Nativity are chanted every day. In the Russian usage, the hangings in the church are changed to the festive color (usually white) at the beginning of the Forefeast.

Two Sundays before Nativity, the Church calls to remembrance the ancestors of the church, both before the giving of the Law of Moses & after. The Menaion contains a full set of hymns for this day which are chanted in conjunction with the regular Sunday hymns from the Octoechos. These hymns commemorate various biblical persons, as well as the prophet Daniel & the Three Young Men. There are also a special Epistle (Colossians 3:4-11) & Gospel (Luke 14:16-24) readings appointed for the Divine Liturgy on this day.

The Sunday before Nativity is even broader in its scope of commemoration than the previous Sunday, in that it commemorates all of the righteous men & women who pleased God from the creation of the world up to Saint Joseph. The Menaion provides an even fuller service for this day than the previous Sunday. At the Vespers portion of the All-Night Vigil three Old Testament "parables" (paroemia) are read: Genesis 14:14-20, Deuteronomy 1:8-17 & Deuteronomy 10:14-21. The Epistle which is read at the Divine Liturgy is a selection from Hebrews 11:9-40; the Gospel is the Genealogy of Christ from the Gospel of Matthew (1:1-25)

Christmas Eve is traditionally called Paramony (Greek: παραμονή, Slavonic: navechérie). Paramony is observed as a strict fast day, on which those faithful who are physically able to, refrain from food until the first star is observed in the evening or after the Vesperal Divine Liturgy, when a meal with wine & oil may be taken. On this day the Royal Hours are celebrated in the morning. Some of the hymns are similar to those of Theophany (Epiphany) & Great & Holy Friday, thus tying the symbolism of Christ's Nativity to his death on the Cross. The Royal Hours are followed by the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. Basil which combines Vespers with the Divine Liturgy.

During the Vespers, 8 Old Testament lections ("parables") which prefigure or prophesy the Incarnation of Christ are read, & special antiphons are chanted. If the Feast of the Nativity falls on a Sunday or Monday, the Royal Hours are chanted on the previous Friday, & on the Paramony the Vesperal Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom is celebrated in the morning, with its readings & antiphons, & the fasting is lessened to some degree—a meal with wine & oil being served after the Liturgy.

The All-Night Vigil on the night of December 24 consists of Great Compline, Matins & the First Hour. One of the highlights of Great Compline is the exultant chanting of "God is with us!" interspersed between selected verses from the prophesy of Isaiah 8:9-18, foretelling the triumph of the Kingdom of God, & 9:2-7, foretelling the birth of the Messiah ("For unto us a child is born...& he shall be called...the Mighty God....").

The Orthodox do not normally serve a Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; rather, the Divine Liturgy for the Nativity of Christ is celebrated the next morning. However, in those monasteries which continue to celebrate the All-Night Vigil in its long form—where it literally lasts throughout the night—the conclusion of the Vigil at dawn on Christmas morning will often lead directly into the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. When the Vigil is separate from the Divine Liturgy, the Lenten fast continues even after the Vigil, until the end of the Liturgy the next morning.

On December 25, the Afterfeast of the Nativity of Christ begins. From that day to January 4 (the day before Theophany Eve) is a fast-free Period. The Eve of the Theophany (January 5) is another strict fast day (paramony).

US Slaves during the 18C & 19C Christmas Holidays

The Slave Experience of the Holidays
From Documenting the American South. University Library, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

American slaves experienced the Christmas holidays in many different ways. Joy, hope, and celebration were naturally a part of the season for many. For other slaves, these holidays conjured up visions of freedom and even the opportunity to bring about that freedom. Still others saw it as yet another burden to be endured...

The prosperity and relaxed discipline associated with Christmas often enabled slaves to interact in ways that they could not during the rest of the year. They customarily received material goods from their masters: perhaps the slave's yearly allotment of clothing, an edible delicacy, or a present above and beyond what he or she needed to survive and work on the plantation.

For this reason, among others, slaves frequently married during the Christmas season. When Dice, a female slave in Nina Hill Robinson's Aunt Dice, came to her master "one Christmas eve, and asked his consent to her marriage with Caesar," her master allowed the ceremony, and a "great feast was spread." Dice and Caesar were married in "the mistress's own parlor . . . before the white minister." More than any other time of year, Christmas provided slaves with the latitude and prosperity that made a formal wedding possible.

On the plantation, the transfer of Christmas gifts from master to slave was often accompanied by a curious ritual. On Christmas day, "it was always customary in those days to catch peoples Christmas gifts and they would give you something." Slaves and children would lie in wait for those with the means to provide presents and capture them, crying 'Christmas gift' and refusing to release their prisoners until they received a gift in return.  This ironic annual inversion of power occasionally allowed slaves to acquire real power. Henry, a slave whose tragic life and death is recounted in Martha Griffith Browne's Autobiography of a Female Slave, saved "Christmas gifts in money" to buy his freedom.

Some slaves saw Christmas as an opportunity to escape. They took advantage of relaxed work schedules and the holiday travels of slaveholders, who were too far away to stop them. While some slaveholders presumably treated the holiday as any other workday, numerous authors record a variety of holiday traditions, including the suspension of work for celebration and family visits. Because many slaves had spouses, children, and family who were owned by different masters and who lived on other properties, slaves often requested passes to travel and visit family during this time. Some slaves used the passes to explain their presence on the road and delay the discovery of their escape through their masters' expectation that they would soon return from their "family visit." Jermain Loguen plotted a Christmas escape, stockpiling supplies and waiting for travel passes, knowing the cover of the holidays was essential for success: "Lord speed the day!--freedom begins with the holidays!"  These plans turned out to be wise, as Loguen and his companions are almost caught crossing a river into Ohio, but were left alone because the white men thought they were free men "who have been to Kentucky to spend the Holidays with their friends."

Harriet Tubman helped her brothers escape at Christmas. Their master intended to sell them after Christmas but was delayed by the holiday. The brothers were expected to spend the day with their elderly mother but met Tubman in secret. She helped them travel north, gaining a head start on the master who did not discover their disappearance until the end of the holidays. Likewise, William and Ellen Crafts escaped together at Christmastime. They took advantage of passes that were clearly meant for temporary use. Ellen "obtained a pass from her mistress, allowing her to be away for a few days. The cabinet-maker with whom I worked gave me a similar paper, but said that he needed my services very much, and wished me to return as soon as the time granted was up. I thanked him kindly; but somehow I have not been able to make it convenient to return yet; and, as the free air of good old England agrees so well with my wife and our dear little ones, as well as with myself, it is not at all likely we shall return at present to the 'peculiar institution' of chains and stripes."

Christmas could represent not only physical freedom, but spiritual freedom, as well as the hope for better things to come. The main protagonist of Martha Griffin Browne's Autobiography of a Female Slave, Ann, found little positive value in the slaveholder's version of Christmas—equating it with "all sorts of culinary preparations" and extensive house cleaning rituals—but she saw the possibility for a better future in the story of the life of Christ: "This same Jesus, whom the civilized world now worship as their Lord, was once lowly, outcast, and despised; born of the most hated people of the world . . . laid in the manger of a stable at Bethlehem . . . this Jesus is worshipped now."  For Ann, Christmas symbolized the birth of the very hope she used to survive her captivity.

Not all enslaved African Americans viewed the holidays as a time of celebration and hope. Rather, Christmas served only to highlight their lack of freedom. As a young boy, Louis Hughes was bought in December and introduced to his new household on Christmas Eve "as a Christmas gift to the madam."  When Peter Bruner tried to claim a Christmas gift from his master, "he took me and threw me in the tan vat and nearly drowned me. Every time I made an attempt to get out he would kick me back in again until I was almost dead."

Frederick Douglass described the period of respite that was granted to slaves every year between Christmas and New Year's Day as a psychological tool of the oppressor. In his 1845 Narrative, Douglass wrote that slaves celebrated the winter holidays by engaging in activities such as "playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whiskey."  He took particular umbrage at the latter practice, which was often encouraged by slave owners through various tactics. "One plan [was] to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whiskey without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess." 

In My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass concluded that "[a]ll the license allowed [during the holidays] appears to have no other object than to disgust the slaves with their temporary freedom, and to make them as glad to return to their work, as they were to leave it."  While there is no doubt that many enjoyed these holidays, Douglass acutely discerned that they were granted not merely in a spirit of charity or conviviality, but also to appease those who yearned for freedom, ultimately serving the ulterior motives of slave owners.

Morning Madonna

Pedro García de Benabarre (Spanish artist, flourished 1445-85) Virgin & Child with Angels.  Central portion of an altarpiece from the parish Church of the Assumption in Bellcaire d'Urgell. 

In this blog, I try to begin each day with a painting of the Madonna & Child. It centers me; connects me to the past; & encourages me to post some of the religious paintings which were a large part of the core of early Western art.  In the 4C, as the Christian population was rapidly growing & was now supported by the state, Christian art evolved & became grander to suit new, enlarged public spaces & the changing contemporary tastes of elite private clients.