Have you ever wondered what it would have been like to be an African-American celebrating Christmas back in the 19th century…before the civil war? Today, many of us can enjoy gathering together with family, roasting turkey, opening gifts and above all we can enjoy the freedom to celebrate our holidays.
When I was 7 years old, my parents gave me the book Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in Quarters…for a Christmas present.
I’ve had the book for years, but I am just now reading it as an adult.
The book is written by Patricia McKissack and Frederick McKissack, with illustrations by John Thompson. It is a book about life in the antebellum south at Christmas time.
The story takes place in Virginia in 1859.
Here is what I learned.
In the Big House, Christmas was just a time for jubilation, in the slave quarters…Christmas was a rare time where Black people could eat a full meal and not feel the pains of hunger. It was also a time when African-Americans could possibly see family members who had been sold off to other plantations. Christmas was called “The Big Times,” by Black people in the quarters because it meant big things for both Blacks and Whites.
Preparing for Christmas:
Most of the preparation for Christmas was done by the Black slaves. They “white washed,” the whole house and cleaned everything and they prepared the food, over the watchful eye of the plantation mistress. One of the first tasks of the enslaved African-Americans on the plantation was to bring in the Christmas tree for the white women to decorate .
The Christmas tree originated in the Southern regions of the United States. German immigrants brought the tenenbaum to the South and it spread across the United States and then the world. Some families in the South viewed the German immigrants as being in the same category as the abolitionist of the North.
The Black women who worked in the house prepared much of the food that the white family and their extended family would eat.
One task that the white people had was to disseminate invitations by hand to other white families for the New Year’s Eve Ball. Another “Task,” that white men had was to write passes for slaves to visit family on Christmas Day.
What kinds of foods did the white family eat for Christmas Dinner?
Ham, steaks, roast turkey, dressing, gravy, vegetables, bread pudding fruit, desserts and coffee
What Kinds of Foods did Those in the slave Quarters eat for Christmas Dinner?
Roast chicken, squirrel, pickled pig feet, poke salad, collard greens, eggs, ham hocks, ash cakes, persimmon wine
While the white family got to eat good, hearty meals regularly, Christmas was the only time during the year that Black families who were enslaved really had a chance to eat a full meal and not feel hunger.
Although the white families generally received the “best cut,” of the meat and the Black families in the quarters got the leftovers, the Black mothers and women in the slave quarters were able to create gourmet meals from what little they had and sometimes the white families would come and visit the slave quarters and they would eat some of the Chitlins or ash cakes that the Black family prepared…in addition to eating their own meals.
According to McKissack , the purpose of these visits to the slave cabins on Christmas was to keep a “watchful eye,” on the Black people on the plantation. There was a lingering fear among the white people that the slaves would rebel like Nat Turner or like the Africans aboard the ship Creole.
What Kind of Gifts Did White People Get?
Most of the gifts were given to children, they would get things like white dolls, horns, wagons, blocks, Jacob’s Ladder, pocketknife and drums. Their stocking were filled with toys and candies.
What Kind of Gifts Did Enslaved Black People Get?
Fortunate Black families got to see their family members who were granted passes to come and visit family that was sold to other plantations. Some family members who weren’t granted passes to see their family on other plantation sent messages with other enslaved Blacks who were granted passes. Christmas was a time for messages to be relayed back and forth from plantation to plantation.
Those field hands got time in the quarters to relax for a change. The crops were planted and waiting to take root over the winter, so they got some time off.
Also because of the time off that Christmas gave to field hands, it wasn’t unusual for a wedding to occur over Christmas. The best dresses were dyed for the bride.
Unfortunately, the house servants had to keep working through Christmas most of the time.
The adults didn’t generally receive presents on Christmas, but children sometimes got handmade toys…like straw dolls, handmade whistles, a gee-haw stick, a hand made blanket.
Sometimes the white family gave presents to the Black family on plantation like a handkerchief, while the Black family had to reciprocate, usually by giving a handmade basket full of eggs or something of the like. If the Black family were invited into the house for Christmas…they were expected to show up, if they didn’t the slave master “kept mental note,” of who didn’t show up and sometimes that person would be penalized later.
People came from afar to visit the white families, sometimes they brought their slaves with them. One slave in the story came from New Orleans. Each region in the south had their own culture, so sometimes slaves from the deep south and upper south exchanged their regional cultures at Christmas time.
What Kinds of Things Did White Men Talk about at Christmas:
They talked about the fear of slave revolt, they talked about the possibility of secession from the North, they talked about how kind they were to their slaves at Christmas time and how “happy” their slaves were.
What Kind of Things Did Black People Talk about at Christmas:
They talked about the possibility emancipation, they talked about abolitionist, they talked about who was able to safely make it North to freedom. Christmas brought hope that soon the Black family would be celebrating Christmas, not as slaves, but as free people.
At The End of the Day:
Black Families sorrowfully say goodbye to the family members that they may not see again until the following Christmas, if at all…You never knew who would be sold when…
The White family retires to bed, feeling satisfied. The Black family goes to bed, dreaming of freedom and singing songs. The white family thinks that the songs the Black people sing are songs of jubilation, but they really are signals and messages used to communicate about the prospects of freedom.
The field hands dispose of the Christmas tree and house is prepared for New Year’s Ball.
The White families go to a New Year’s Eve Ball.
The Black families enjoy the last days of “The Big Times,” before life goes back to normal.
After New Years:
After the holidays are over, the white folks read a list of all the Black people who would be sold off! Families are torn apart again, maybe only to be reunited at next Christmas…if the slave master permits it.
Shortly after “The Big Times,” are over…life goes back to normal for the slaves. They go back to scant meals, long work hours, not seeing their families that were sold afar…back to whippings and everything bad.
That was how things went for a while until slavery was legally removed.
When I have the freedom to see my family whenever I want and eat full, hearty meals on a regular basis…I won’t take these things for granted because there was a time when I wouldn’t have been able to do that. It also makes me think of those who don’t have food and family available for Christmas.
I imagine that if I’m ever blessed to have my own children, I’ll gather them around and read this story to them too.