Memory  /  Q&A

The Grim History of Christmas for Slaves in the Deep South

"If you read enough sources, you run into cases of slaves spending a lot of time over Christmas crying."

Which is the most influential of those pro-Christmas Lost Cause propaganda?

The one writing that affected people the most was probably Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories—they’ve been so popular. They described the joy of the Christmas holiday for slaves, and Disney picked up on that in the movie Song of the South. There were short stories, poems, illustrations for magazines like Harper’s and others with pictures of Christmases after the war [showing] former enslaved people who still loved their former masters and mistresses so much that, even though they were no longer subject to their will, they would come by their houses after Christmas bearing presents for reunions.

And what was Christmastime really like for the enslaved?

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] original master on Christmas. On January 1st, they would be rented out again; and the master would pick out their new employer. 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] be someone who would whip them a lot, or would abuse them in other ways. 

There were even cases of masters and mistresses giving enslaved people as Christmas gifts to family members, and to their children. Louis Hughes, who escaped from enslavement and later in life published an autobiography entitled Thirty Years a Slave, recalled in his book how he had literally been presented by his purchaser as a gift to 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.”