How did American slaves celebrate Christmas?

220px-Harriet_Ann_Jacobs1894This weekend, Roger and I had the opportunity to see the Oscar-winning film, 12 Years a Slave.  The film is based on Solomon Northup’s autobiographical work, and, for many, the film opened our eyes not only to the cruelties (“cruelty” is not a strong enough word) of slavery, but also,  to the stories that a few African American slaves recorded.  In elementary school, we learned about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, but there are many other African American authors who have recorded their narratives.

One such author is Harriet A. Jacobs, author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.  She was a contemporary of Solomon Northup, living with her family in North Carolina.  Her largely autobiographical narrative includes a chapter titled, “Christmas Festivities.”  Leading up to this chapter, Jacobs’s character, Linda, has hidden in the attic of a small shed to avoid the sexual advances of her master.  She is able to see her children, cared for by their grandmother, but for her safety and theirs, the children do not know where she is hidden.  She lived in hiding for seven years.

Christmas Day for these slaves is both a celebration and a sadness because January 1 is “hiring day,” when slaves can be traded, sold or hired to a new master.  Often families were separated from each other.

In this story, Grandmother bring materials to Linda so that Linda can make small gifts for her children.  On Christmas morning, children rise to see the Johnkannaus,  characters in brightly colored strips of cloth and headdresses of horns.

“They consist of companies of slaves from the plantations, generally of the lower class. Two athletic men, in calico wrappers, have a net thrown over them, covered with all manner of bright-colored stripes. Cows’ tails are fastened to their backs, and their heads are decorated with horns. A box, covered with sheepskin, is called the gumbo box. A dozen beat on this, while others strike triangles and jawbones, to which bands of dancers keep time. For a month previous they are composing songs, which are sung on this occasion. These companies, of a hundred each, turn out early in the morning, and are allowed to go round till twelve o’clock, begging for contributions. “

On the North Carolina digital history page, this tradition is described as rare in America, unique to North Carolina, originating in the islands of the Caribbean.  The description of the Johnkannaus remind me of the tradition of mummers in early American history.  There are some connections, including the wild costumes, the music and the begging.  I’m sure Jeremy will discover many more ways the traditions are alike.  I’ve only scratched the surface.Johnkannaus

From Harriet Jacobs’ description, the time between Christmas Day and the New Year was one of the only times of the year when a slave, if he/she had a kind master, was given “time off.”  There was feasting and  small gifts exchanged.

This entry was posted in History.

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