What to the Slave Was Christmas?

Slaves on Plantation

Robert May, a historian of Purdue University, has an interesting piece about Christmas tours of Southern plantation that do not acknowledge how the slaves on those plantations experienced Christmas.  Here is a taste of his piece at The Conversation: “Slave life’s harsh realities are erased in Christmas tours of Southern plantations”:

I read many documents to find out how slaves actually spent their Christmases. The truth is deeply disturbing.

On the one hand, the majority of enslaved people did get some them time off from work during Christmas, as well as feasts and presents. Some got to travel or to get married, privileges that they didn’t get at other times of the year. But these privileges could be withdrawn for any reason at all and many slaves never got them at all.

Slavery was a brutal system of forced labor to enrich those same owners. Even over the holiday, masters kept the power to punish slaves. A photo taken during the Civil War shows a man who was whipped at Christmas. His back was covered with scars, showing that when masters punished the people they held in bondage, they often did so brutally.

There were other cruel forms of punishment. On one South Carolina plantation, a master angry at an enslaved woman he suspected of miscarrying her pregnancy on purpose locked her up for the Christmas holiday.

Masters sometimes forced enslaved workers to get drunk even if they did not want to drink, or wrestle with each other on Christmas simply for the amusement of the master’s family.

Likewise, I learned in my research, slaveholders bought and sold plenty of people over the holiday, keeping slave traders busy during Christmas week.

Read the entire piece here.