The holiday season is a time when there has been a lot of national debate about how much history of slavery should be taught to students in America. About the time of Christmas National holidays began to be established. in the late-19th century, propagandists of the Lost Cause—the myth that the Civil War was fought for states rights and not for slavery—were trying to reframe what happened in the South during the antebellum era.
While they lost the war, one way they tried to win hearts and minds—and political power—was by telling romanticized stories about Christmastime. The Confederate myth was supported by these accounts, in which slaves were described as enjoying their masters and mistresses.
But the myth couldn’t be further from the reality. Many slaves spent holidays worried about being sold, or were subject to whippings. Some like Henry Bibb picked Christmas Day in 1837 to escape to freedom; in his 1849 memoirs, he writes about deciding to make “a bolt for Liberty or consent to die a Slave” by paddling across the river from Kentucky to Ohio after his plantation owner gave enslaved persons some time around the holiday to work for themselves.
His 2019 book Yuletide In Dixie: Southern Memory, Slavery and Christmas Historiographer Robert E. May reviewed plantation owners’ diaries, periodicals, memoirs, as well as oral accounts from those formerly enslaved to see what really happened on plantations at Christmas. TIME interviewed him about his shocking experiences and the ways that the Lost Cause myths can be used to help paint a better picture of slavery’s past.
How valuable is it to use Christmastime to examine slavery in the Civil War and the Antebellum periods?
[If] we really want to understand why America’s bloodiest war occurred in the first place, we must recognize the important part Christmas played in Civil War causation. Many figures involved in the Civil War were vocal about Christmas. I wouldn’t say that you can understand the Confederate defeat from studying Christmas in the Confederacy, but you can [see that]The southerners sought to establish a national identity partly built around Christmas.
History has largely ignored the connection between the anti-slavery policies of the North and the panics over Christmas that resulted in the South, I believe. This was because whites were not allowed to enter the country at Christmas. Southern whites understood that slave revolts had been a long-standing feature of South America’s history. Insurrections that were the most violent occurred in Christmastime in countries like Jamaica.
Some enslaved Americans were also rounded up [when there were]These insurrections were rumored and executed without evidence by vigilante organizations.
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I got the sense from your book that there was a bigger spectacle made over Civil War Christmases in the war’s aftermath than during it.
Ninety-to-ninety-five percent of this [Christmas propaganda]This is an example of the time period between 1880 (a few years after Reconstruction was stopped by the North) and 1929, when the stock market crashed. This was the period when Confederate living became acceptable by white southerners. The 1890s saw southerners trying to regain national power in Washington D.C. and part of this was [their tactics]to fight back ideologically. The feeling of defensiveness made them write these very calm accounts about slavery. They were trying to defend the South’s ways of life.
The United Daughters of the Confederacy would give these warm-hearted appraisals of the Christmas experience of the South’s enslaved peoples. Many writers would dedicate entire chapters to Christmas in novels and memoirs. They aren’t just about Christmas, but Christmas was a major focus—one of the most important components of these works trying to defend slavery and southern customs before the Civil War. It won over many hearts.
Are there any Christmastime myths that were created during slavery?
They focused on these warm traditions, like all the joy of the enslaved people getting their presents—joking to each other about who would get the best Christmas present from their masters.
According to the main components of the myths of Christmas in the late antebellum period—1831 to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861—slaveholders showed their concern for their slaves by what they gave them at Christmas. Little presents would be distributed by mistresses to slaves. They might include pipes, socks, and apron for women. [The enslaved]The freedom to travel virtually anywhere; the ability to visit relatives and staff at another plantation. Stories abound about masters inviting slaves onto the porch of their houses to see fireworks.
Which of the pro-Christmas Lost Cause propagandists is most influential?
The one writing that affected people the most was probably Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories—they’ve been so popular. Disney adapted their story to include the joy that Christmas brings slaves.Song of the South. Magazines like. Harper’sOther photos showing Christmases in the aftermath of war [showing]Former slaves who loved their mistresses and masters still came to visit their homes after Christmas with presents in order to reunite.
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Was Christmas for the slaves really like?
Enslaved people didn’t all get a long holiday. White planters who owned scores, hundreds or, in a few cases, even thousands of slaves—wrote in their own private diaries that they resented giving them time off at Christmas at all.
Another thing that’s never pointed out in these fictional accounts later is that a large percentage of enslaved people were rented on one-year contracts and often allowed to return home to [their]The original master would be present at Christmas. The master would rent them out once more on January 1. Even if they were given good feasts and good presents, enslaved people had to spend the whole Christmas period worrying about January 1st—whether [their new employer would]an abuser or someone who whips them.
Continue reading: ‘The Slaves Dread New Year’s Day the Worst’: The Grim History of January 1
Even mistresses and masters gave enslaved persons as Christmas gifts to their families and children. Louis Hughes, a man who managed to escape from enslavement but later published his autobiography entitled A Slave for Thirty YearsHe recalled, in his book, how the gift he received from his buyer was a present for his wife on Christmas Eve. Tuskegee Institute principal Robert Russa Moton, one of the leading black educators in the U.S. in the early twentieth century, remembered being a child in Prince Edward County, Virginia, and having to watch his father being conferred “as a Christmas present” during an estate settlement. And LaSalle Corbell Pickett— the widow of George Pickett, the famed Confederate General who led Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg—claims in her own memoirs that her present one year was a six-week-old Black baby boy, accompanied by “a deed that made him mine.”
There’s a national debate now about teaching the whole history of slavery. Which role do you think Christmas plays in perpetuating Lost Cause propaganda and how does this fit into the conversation?
It’s certainly timely in the sense of the debates that are going on right now: Do you really bring up Christmas slave sales? Are you really bringing up Christmas whippings, or are those going to make a part of your class feel bad? My answer is that we really do need to liberate teachers to address the past critically—not just about enslavement, but our whole history of race in America.
As long as we don’t address it hyper-critically, we’re never going to realize what really happened in the past. We’re going to perpetuate these myths that I think have helped underwrite segregation and discrimination in America for decades—and we’re going to leave American schoolchildren in the dark. Teaching slavery is not always an enjoyable experience. However, we must be realistic about the past.