Slaves at Christmas in a print from the Library of Congress, and a still image from '12 Years a Slave'
Slaves at Christmas in a print from the Library of Congress, and a still image from '12 Years a Slave.' (Getty Images)

Solomon Northup was a free black man in New York who married the love of his life on Christmas Day in 1829. A dozen years later, he was kidnapped into slavery and sold to a Louisiana plantation, an occurrence at the heart of the recent movie 12 Years a Slave. As he soon likely discovered, Christmas marriage ceremonies served as a cultural connection between his experience in slavery and his life as a free man.

In films such as this that have become popular in recent months, we mainly see slaves depicted in their conflicts with their owners. Rarely do we see the culture and lives they made for themselves despite oppression.

Reflecting on slaves’ traditions at this time of year is a way for us to honor their strength and ingenuity, despite inhumane circumstances. Here is how our ancestors — through acts such as marriage — used Christmas as a time to fortify our community.

Christmas as a respite from hardship

Christmastime on southern antebellum plantations was the occasion that slaves looked forward to the most. Even while subjected to the evils of slavery and its horrors, blacks managed to find small pockets of joy in this holiday celebration. As former slave Charley Hurt told federal officials tasked to document his experiences, “Dat was one day on Massa’s place when all am happy and forgets dey am slaves.”

Based on a collection of slave narratives the government collected as part of the Federal Writer’s Project in the late 1930s, we know that Christmas was observed on nearly all such plantations, with black slaves and white slave owners often celebrating together. Black household servants and field hands were usually given a break from their daily labor lasting anywhere from two to seven days.

While some have contended the holiday spirit caused slaveowners to temporarily treat their slaves with some measure of dignity, the reality is the celebration was used to reinforce paternalism, encourage slave allegiance, and provide what Frederick Douglass described as a, “safety valve to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.”

In other words, Christmas was used to keep slaves passive and in check.

Christmas: A time of controlled plenty

Despite this, blacks found a way to make this time significant by strengthening communal bonds, reuniting families, and rejuvenating their bodies and spirits from the extremely brutal conditions of slavery.

On a typical plantation Christmas, slaves would awake and actually seek out whites because it was customary for all slaves to receive gifts. To get their presents, they played a game called Christmas Gift. When slaves first encountered whites on that morning, the first to shout “Christmas Gift!” would be the winner, to which the loser must give a gift. Of course, the slaves were always allowed to win to, because whites often refused to accept gifts from them. That would signal some measure of equality and disrupt the social order.

Later in the morning, many slave-owning families would gather all of the domestic servants and field hands together and pass out presents in a more formal manner. The children would receive candy or hand-me-down toys, and sometimes coins were thrown at them. The adults usually received gifts of necessity, such as clothes and shoes to replace their tattered garments. These gifts were how slave owners protected their investment, as proper clothing was better for a slave’s health and morale.

In many places, slaves that picked the most cotton, or had a child, were given special gifts as a reward for their increased productivity. These gift-giving rituals served as a reminder to the slaves that their owners were in total control and even their most basic needs were provided at the whim of whites.

The façade of cheerful white benevolence, however, would often crack under the temporary challenge of treating slaves like people instead of property. As the Louisiana plantation master Bennet Barrows wrote in his diary, “Getting tired of the holidays, Negros want too much.”

Breaking “normal” rules at Christmas 

Christmas was also one of the few times of the year when slaves were allowed to eat a wealth of fresh meat, fruits, and baked goods. Their diet usually consisted of cornmeal and salted meat, so the holiday meal was a welcome change they eagerly anticipated.

Plus, slaves were usually permitted to congregate in the house only during holiday season. These large meals with blacks and whites eating in adjacent rooms were often followed by lots of music and dancing.

Additionally, slaves were provided with just about all the alcohol they could drink. It is widely thought this was done to keep them inebriated and, thus, incapable of organizing a revolt. Francis Fedric was an escaped slave who recounted how his master used to force his slaves to drink too much. And then he’d have them gather around, all of them extremely drunk, and tell them they obviously don’t know how to be responsible with their freedom, and that they were lucky to have him as a master to keep them from ruining themselves.

Slaves create their own traditions

Christmas was also used to ensure slaves accepted the version of Christianity their masters practiced. Religion was used as a tool to keep slaves complacent and to convey the notion that God approved of their condition. But in parts of the coastal South, many slaves broke away from the Christian tradition and engaged in festivities with roots from their West African heritage in a celebration called “John Kunering.”

The primary element of the John Kunering ceremony consisted of black men dressed in rags and animal skins, playing instruments, singing, dancing, and marching from home to home to perform for masters and overseers. Those who witnessed the show were to reward the men with money and alcohol.

This ritual has the same roots as New Orleans “second line” parades and is a precursor to the modern-day performances of black marching bands and the step routines of black fraternities and sororities.

Solidifying social bonds despite oppression

But the most significant observance during Christmas was allowing slaves to receive passes to visit their friends and family – husbands, wives, and children – that resided on other plantations. This sort of prolonged interaction, though infrequent, led to an integrated black community that extended far beyond individual plantations. This familial and social contact proved to be an important aspect of the sustenance that allowed blacks to survive slavery.

Christmastime was one of the few periods when “marriages” were possible and allowed (although not legally binding). As such, it became a celebration of more than just gifts and food, but a sort of renewal of the human bonds of unity that slavery attempted to strip from blacks. Many whites attended their slaves’ marriages, but some couldn’t stand the sight of people they owned under law pretending to be civilized.

Christmas on the plantation was a time of brief, if incomplete, relief from slavery for many blacks. But underneath the seemingly kind gestures from slaveowners were actions that actually served to strengthen the institution of slavery and maintain owners’ power over blacks. In spite of this, slaves managed to co-opt the holiday to renew their bonds to one another as a way of overcoming the dehumanization of society.

From their example, we see the truest illustration of the Christmas spirit. May it be alive and well with you as you gather, make merry, and revivify your familial and social bonds this holiday season.

Theodore R. Johnson is a military officer and 2011-2012 White House Fellow. A graduate of Hampton and Harvard Universities, he is an opinion writer on race, politics, and public service. Follow Theodore R. Johnson on Twitter at @T_R_Johnson_III