For slaves, Christmas could be the best of times and the worst of times.
It was a good time to escape and a bad time to be a “gift”. It was a good time for escaping and a bad time for hanging. A good time for annual allotments of clothing and a bad time to be allotted as security for bets.
The article “The Slave Experience of the Holidays: Christmas as an Opportunity to Escape,” provides a detailed description of what life was like for slaves during the holidays:
“The prosperity and relaxed discipline associated with Christmas often enabled slaves to interact in ways that they could not during the rest of the year. They customarily received material goods from their masters: perhaps the slave’s yearly allotment of clothing, an edible delicacy, or a present above and beyond what he or she needed to survive and work on the plantation.”
For this reason, among others, slaves frequently married during the Christmas season. For example, Dice, a female slave in the novel, Aunt Dice, by Nina Hill Robinson “Came to her master one Christmas Eve, and asked his consent to her marriage with Caesar, her master allowed the ceremony, and a great feast was spread. Dice and Caesar were married in the mistress’ own parlor…before the White minister.”
Some slaves also saw Christmas as an opportunity to escape. They took advantage of relaxed work schedules and the holiday travels of slaveholders, who were too far away to stop them.
While some slaveholders presumably treated the holiday as any other workday, numerous authors record a variety of holiday traditions, including the suspension of work for celebration and family visits.
Because many slaves had spouses, children and family who were owned by different masters and who lived on other properties, slaves often requested passes to travel and visit family during this time. Some slaves used the passes to explain their presence on the road and delay the discovery of their escape through their master’s expectation that they would soon return from their “family visit”.
The article also addresses the holiday plans of a slave named Jermain Loguen and the courage of Harriet Tubman:
“Jermain Loguen plotted a Christmas escape, stockpiling supplies and waiting for travel passes, knowing the cover of the holidays was essential for success: ‘Lord speed the day! – freedom begins with the holidays!’”
These plans turned out to be wise, as Loguen and his companions are almost caught crossing a river into Ohio, but were left alone because the White men thought they had “been to Kentucky to spend the holidays with their friends”.
In fact, Harriet Tubman helped her brothers escape at Christmas. Their master had intended to sell them after Christmas but was delayed. The brothers were expected to spend the day with their elderly mother but met Tubman in secret. She helped them travel north, gaining a head start on the master who did not discover their disappearance until the end of the holidays.
Frederick Douglass also described the “period of respite” that was granted to slaves every year between Christmas and New Year’s Day as a psychological tool of the oppressor.
In his 1845 Narrative, Douglass wrote:
“Slaves celebrated the winter holidays by engaging in activities such as playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whiskey.”
He took particular umbrage at the latter practice, which was often encouraged by slave owners through various tactics.
“One plan (was) to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whiskey without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess.”
In the Caribbean, Christmas was also a good time to revolt. In the 77 years between 1760 and 1837, there were over 54 slave revolts in the Caribbean. These occurred in the Bahamas, Trinidad, Barbados and the Cayman Islands.
In every Caribbean island, be they Spanish-speaking and Carlotta-led in Cuba; Anglophone and Fedon-led in Grenada; or Francophone and Toussaint-led in Haiti, there were revolts, rebellions, and revolutions. Many of these ended with slaves banished as were the Chatoyer-led Black Caribs of St. Vincent or rebellious slaves in Trinidad, hung in the heart of Port-of-Spain – today’s Woodford Square.
Specifically regarding these Christmas revolts, some occurred in Tobago (1801 and 1816) and in Trinidad (1805). A Christmas rebellion occurred in Jamaica in 1815. The famous Sam Sharpe rebellion in Jamaica began on Christmas Day, 1831 and concluded on January 4, 1832.
Other seasons like Easter also saw rebellions: Bussa-led in Barbados, and Will and Sharper-led in Belize.
How are Christmas, slavery and rum related? To be continued.