Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Ghosts of a Christmas Past," by Adam Goodheart


"Christmas Day in a Virginia Town," 1897 by Clinedinst from  Leslie's Weekly.

From the New York Times, "Ghosts of a Christmas Past," by Adam Goodheart, on December 23, 2010,  --  Macon, Ga., Dec. 24, 1860   --  The city was preparing itself for the holiday. In the pages of the Macon Daily Telegraph, ads touted toys and sweets, books and jewelry, all at bargain prices. In a large front-page ad, the store of H.N. Ells & Co., on Mulberry Street, reminded readers that “Old Santa-Clauz” was coming to town, and urged upon them such last-minute stocking stuffers as apples, figs, candy, and firecrackers.



Advertisement from the Macon Daily Telegraph, Dec. 24, 1860.


Men, women, and children were for sale throughout the much of the United States during that last holiday season before the Civil War, exactly a century and a half ago. In Easton, Md., “Negro Henry, Aged about 26 years, and Negro George, aged about 19 years,” were “offered at private sale until the 25th inst.” – that is, until Christmas Day. In Washington, D.C., just a few blocks from the White House, one owner advertised “a servant girl, seventeen years of age – a slave for life.” In the Christmas morning edition of the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, the local sheriff announced the upcoming sale of a “Mulatto Boy slave named Charles, about 14 years of age.” The lad, who had been seized from his mistress to satisfy debts, was to be put up for public auction in the town market on New Year’s Day.

On the next page of that Christmas Eve newspaper was a more discreet advertisement, this one just five lines of small print:


FOR SALE.  A NEGRO WOMAN 21 years old, and her daughter about six years old. The woman is a good house servant, plain cook, and good washer and Ironer. Warranted sound. Terms cash. Advertisement from the Macon Daily Telegraph, Dec. 24, 1860.


The last weeks of each December were a strange and frightening time to be a slave in America. (Was there ever a normal time, however?) In the antebellum period, the end of the calendar year was – as it is now – a busy period for financial transactions. Assets were liquidated, debts settled, taxes paid, balance sheets scrutinized. Any of these might lead a slaveholder to divest himself of some human property. Based on the evidence in contemporary newspapers, New Year’s Day slave auctions like the one in Augusta were common.


The estimated five to 10 percent of American slaves who were rented from one master to another (in some regions the figure was more than 60 percent) had their own reasons to be terrified. Jan. 1 was when old rental contracts expired and slaves’ services were auctioned off for the year ahead, sending them to different, often far-flung, plantations. One former bondsman would recall how each New Year’s Day, “the cries and tears of brothers, sisters, wives, and husbands were heard in the streets” as black families were separated – at least for twelve months, but possibly forever.

At the same time, surreally enough, Christmas was a time when many masters encouraged their slaves to eat, drink, and be merry. Field hands were commonly given the entire week as a holiday – their only one of the year. South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond – who did not hesitate to rape female slaves and to lash servants with his own hand – distributed gifts throughout the quarters, and noted in his journal that on Christmas, “a barbecue is given, beef, mutton, and pork, coffee and bread being bountifully provided.” On the morning of Dec. 25, right after opening presents and emptying stockings, masters would bring their families down to the slave cabins to watch blacks perform dances and songs that had been handed down from Africa.


Frederick Douglass, remembering boyhood Christmases on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, wrote:

From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slave, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection. … These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity. But for these, the slave would be forced up to the wildest desperation; and woe betide the slaveholder, the day he ventures to remove or hinder the operation of those conductors! I warn him that, in such an event, a spirit will go forth in their midst, more to be dreaded than the most appalling earthquake.

The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave.

The Yuletide season was an unquiet time throughout the nation on the brink of the Civil War – and not just among black Americans. Judging from period newspapers, Christmas 150 years ago was just as politicized as it is now, if not more so. With the nation splitting in half (South Carolina had seceded on Dec. 20), each side of the Mason-Dixon Line tried to claim the holiday as its own.

In the South, the Augusta Chronicle accused the Yankee Puritans of being joyless Christmas-haters: “Our broad Union is divided between the descendant of the Norman Cavalier reverencing Christmas, and the descendant of the Saxon Puritan repudiating it … Let us hear no more of a “Cotton Confederation” but let us have instead (what may sound like a jest, but which has something of seriousness in it) a Confederation of the Christmas States.”

Winter Holydays in the Southern States – Plantation Frolic on Christmas Eve,” from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Dec. 26, 1857. The slaveholders and their family can be seen in the background, watching the dancers and distributing gifts.


Meanwhile, several hundred miles closer to the North Pole, the same day’s Philadelphia Inquirer called Christmas a “good old Yankee custom” and added: “If Charleston growls and, playing the Scrooge, would curse our Christmas carol, let us hope that the Marley’s Ghost of her old patriotism will soften her by and by.”

Culturally, Christmas in 1860 was also at a strange transition point. In many parts of America, it was still celebrated as a riotous old pagan Saturnalia: working-class revelers known as “callithumpians” paraded through the streets in drag or blackface (sometimes both), firing off guns and starting street brawls, defying annual attempts by the city fathers to ban Christmas, as it were. A few years earlier, the Grinch-like Horace Greeley had complained that the day was simply an excuse for New York’s “young men and boys” to drink themselves silly: “As early as 10 o’clock we saw, in Broadway, between the Park and Broome-st., about a dozen parties of boys, each numbering from four to ten persons, nearly every one grossly drunk, and [some] being dragged along by the neck and heels by their hardly less drunk companions.”


But commercialized, mass-market Yule was already coming into its own. An article in the New York Herald analyzed Christmas retail trends much as a newspaper today might do. (Candy sales were up compared to the previous December, while jewelry sales were down: consumers, anxious about the political news, were economizing on gifts.)

American Christmases in the mid-19th century do not seem to have had much religious significance – neither for the callithumpians, nor the proto-shopaholics, nor anyone else. Many, if not most, Protestant churches did not even have Christmas services, though some staged holiday parties, pageants, and “entertainments.” The New-York Tribune remarked in 1860 that only gradually was the festival starting to become as widely observed as more important national celebrations like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day.


Very soon, however, Christmas more or less as we know it today would emerge. A young magazine sketch artist, Thomas Nast, was on his way home from covering Garibaldi’s conquest of southern Italy; two years later, in the pages of Harper’s Weekly, he began publishing his iconic images of Santa Claus. In Galena, Ill., the middle-aged shop clerk Ulysses S. Grant was busy attending to his customers’ last-minute demands. Ten years later, as president of the United States, he would sign into law a bill declaring Christmas a national holiday.

As for the slaves Henry and George, the teenage Charles and the nameless mother and daughter, it is not known how they spent future Christmases. Perhaps they survived that bitter December to celebrate in freedom. (source: New York Times)




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