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What African Americans Ought to Know About Christmas and Slavery


Christmas and slavery were synonymous with gifts and freedom in the 1830s. Many slaves during this time received long breaks to visit their families in other states. Mostly from Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas, the enslaved African Americans would host a major event like marriage, or spend time with family.

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These Southern states were the pioneers of gift-giving, Christmas carols, and decorating homes with colorful ornaments. The Christmas holidays is a southern memory. Frederick Douglass has depicted this picture in his book. He says it was a period of respite.

However, most slave owners feared slaves would rebel during this short period of freedom during Christmas. To prevent rebellion, slaveholders resorted to harsh discipline. During Christmas, slave owners could undertake the annual buying and selling of slaves. This means most slaves became separated from their families to new owners with no assurance of reconciliation. 

People Also Read: 10 Things Young Black Americans in Modern Times Should Learn From Black History

Christmas and Slavery in the1800s

Video source: NotYourMommasHistory YouTube

Gift Giving

Slaves lacked the economic power to buy meaningful Christmas gifts for themselves or family. As such, slave owners took the opportunity to exert the power of surplus. Slave owners give gifts during the festive season. Some of these gifts included old shoes, money, and clothes for adults. The children of slaves were given candies, toys and clothes. 

In return for these gifts, slave owners received salutations, kind words, and low bows from the slaves. 

These traditions boosted their ego as slave owners were pleased with the appreciation. Sometimes, slaves also give gifts to their owners in the form of animal products. 

Christmas Vacation

One thing African Americans need to know about Christmas and slavery is the short vacation slaves received from their masters. These vacations mostly lasted between Christmas Day and the New Year. During this period, slaves were free to use the time as they pleased. There was feast and celebration.

While some slaves used the freedom to plan for long-lasting freedom, others visited families far away. Enslaves used the season to bond, share dinner, and sing together.

It was during this time in 1854 that Harriet Tubman led her three brothers to freedom. She led them through the underground railroad from Philadelphia to Maryland. Tubman had overheard her brothers would be sold after their three-day vacation between Christmas Eve and December 26. 

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Another set that escaped during this period was William and Ellen Crafts. They both escaped on Christmastime. Ellen received a pass from her mistress which allowed her to be away for few days.

John Kannaus During Christmas and Slavery

This tradition was also known as John Canoe or John Kunering. It explains the culture where enslaved people would dress in colorful costumes, beating drums with cow horns. They do this by going from house to house and knocking. If you opened your door to a John Kannaus, you were expected to give them gifts of your choice. 

Not all slave owners loved the idea of drumming, dancing, singing, wrestling and knocking on doors for gifts. However, the joy expressed by the slaves during this season was something everyone cherished. 

Slave Owners Give Slaves as Gifts

Video source: Black Authentic Truth YouTube

While Christmas and slavery were like freedom to most people, it was also a sad season for some slaves. Some slave owners gifted their slaves to business partners during the festive season. 

This often happened during New Year’s Day, when slave owners settled debts and taxes. This mostly resulted in enslaved peoples moving to new owners as they were hired or gifted to the highest bidder.

With black families, the man was mostly sold off while the wife remained with the new master. Black women were used as breeders. They were forced to conceive with other men other than their husbands. Children born as a result are nurtured to continue slavery and hard labor.

Often, black women were raped by men assigned to them by the slave owners, forcing the breeding of new slaves. 

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Christmas and slavery mean different things to African Americans. For some, it was a season when their families were broken and never united. For others, it was the holiday season they received gifts and crafts they couldn’t afford and special food they hadn’t eaten all year.

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Sedi Djentuh
Sedi Djentuh
Hey, Sedi here, a content writer. She's fascinated by the interplay between people, lifestyle, relationships, tech and communication dedicated to empowering and spreading positive messages about humanity. She's an avid reader and a student of personal weekly workouts. When she's not writing, Sedi is busy advocating for plastic-free earth with her local NGO.


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