American Christmas Under Slavery (1879): Sketches of my life in the South


Both masters and slaves regarded Christmas as a great day. When the slaveholders made a large crop they were pleased, and gave the slaves from five to six days, which was much enjoyed by the negroes, especially by those who could dance. Christmas morning was held sacred both by master and slave, but in the afternoon or in a part of the next day the slaves were required to devote themselves to the pleasure of their masters.

Some of the masters would buy presents for the slaves, such as hats and tobacco for the men, handkerchiefs and little things for the women, these things were given after they had been pleased with them, after either dancing or something for their amusement.

When the slaves came up to their master and mistress the latter would welcome them, the men would take off their hats and bow and the women would make a low courtesy. There would be two or three large pails filled with sweetened water with a gallon or two of whiskey in each, this was dealt out to them until they were partly drunk; while this was going on those who could talk very well would give tokens of well wishing to their master and mistress, and some who were born in Africa would sing some of their songs or tell different stories of the customs in Africa.

After this they would spend half a day in dancing in some large cotton house or on a scaffold, the master providing fiddlers who came from other plantations if there were none on the place, and who received from fifteen to twenty dollars on these occasions.

A great many of the strict members of the church who did not dance would be forced to do it to please their masters, the favorite tunes were ” The Fisher’s Hornpipe,” ” The Devil’s Dream,” and ” Black-eyed Susan.” No one can describe the intense emotion in the negro’s soul on those occasions when they were trying to please their masters and mistresses.

After the dancing was over we had our presents, master giving to the men, and mistress to the women, then the slaves would go to their quarters and continue to dance the rest of the five or six days, and would sometimes dance until eight o’clock Sunday morning.

The cabins were mostly made of logs and there were large cracks in them so that a person could sec the light in them for miles in the night, and of course the sun’s rays would shine through them in the daytime, so on Sunday morning when they were dancing and did not want to stop you would see them filling up the cracks with old rags. Their idea was, that it would not be Sunday inside if they could keep the sun out, and thus they would not desecrate the sabbath; and these things continued until the freedom of the slaves.

Perhaps my readers would like to know if most of the negroes were inclined to violate the sabbath. They did, as the masters would make them do unnecessary work; they got into the habit of dis* regarding the day as one for rest and did many things Sunday which would not be allowed in the North. At that time if you should go through tho South on those large cotton and rice plantations, while you would find some dancing on Sunday, others would be in the woods and fields hunting rabbits and other game, and some would be killing pigs belonging to their masters or neighbors.

I remember when a small boy I went into the woods one Sunday morning with one of my fellow negroes whose name was Muuson, but we called him Pash, and”we killed one of master’s pigs, hid it under the leaves until night, then took it home and dressed it. That was the only time I killed a pig, but I knew of thousands of cases like this in the time of slavery.

But thank God the year of jubilee has come, and the negroes can return from dancing, from hunting, and from the masters’ pig pens on Sundays and become observers of the sabbath, of good moral habits and men of equal rights before the law.

Source: Sketches of my life in the South, Jacob Stroyer, 1879
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