O'Brien on May, 'Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory'

Robert E. May
G. Patrick O'Brien

Robert E. May. Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019. Illustrations. 352 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-4214-8.

Reviewed by G. Patrick O'Brien (Ave Maria University) Published on H-Slavery (January, 2020) Commissioned by Andrew J. Kettler (University of California, Los Angeles)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54775

An important paradox concerning slavery and popular historical memory lies at the heart of Robert E. May’s examination of Christmastime in the American South. How could it be, May asks, that antebellum southern writers could depict joyous Christmas celebrations, where black slaves thankfully enjoyed barbecues and dances organized by charitable slave owners, while contemporary newspaper articles and personal correspondence reveal that whites across Dixie feared Christmas as the time of year when their slaves were most likely to rise up and violently overthrow the plantation system? Furthermore, May questions how and why the agreeable vision of Christmas, one where affectionate masters provided childlike slaves with gifts and work reprieves, became such a firmly entrenched trope in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, at the expense of and often erasing the callous realities of Christmas on southern plantations? May also wants to know why many former slaves, especially those interviewed by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s, provided surprisingly fond accounts of the Christmases they spent in servitude?

Collectively, Yuletide in Dixie draws back the curtain of the Lost Cause mythos to reveal how most slaves saw little, if any, change in their day-to-day routines during Christmastime. May also demonstrates how the fear of slave rebellions was especially pervasive during the Christmas holiday. More than an examination of Christmas traditions, the book skillfully explains how studying the realities of Christmastime celebrations and anxieties helps reveal the “tensions between master abuse and slave agency in all settings,” including on plantations and throughout towns and cities (p. 12). Equally important, the analysis goes beyond the grim realities of holiday slave markets and Christmastime whippings to illuminate the harmful consequences of popular historical memory that envisions Christmas on the plantation as a time when animosities were forgotten and general goodwill prevailed. As May explains, “Yuletide in Dixie suggests that the time is overdue for Americans to divest themselves of all romantic illusions about Christmas in slave times, not only because they distort history but also because any quasi-justification of human bondage—the ‘slavery-wasn’t-all-that-bad’ trope—hampers racial reconciliation today.” Insightfully, he demonstrates that postwar southerners and northerners alike intentionally stripped the image of Christmas in the Old South of its more inhumane realities to promote sectional healing. He suggests that this whitewashed narrative continues to exclude African Americans from a proper place in American history. “If Christmas made slavery tolerable,” May asserts, “then celebrating the Confederacy, its leaders, and its flag becomes less offensive to modern sensibilities” (p. 11).

The study is built from an impressive, and at times overwhelming, myriad of sources. As May explains in his introduction, he was first drawn to the question of slavery and southern Christmas while researching his book John A. Quitman: Old South Crusader (1985). During his research on Quitman, May was struck by the many references he found to the role of servants in Christmas preparations and festivities on the family’s plantation outside Natchez, Mississippi. Appropriately, May relies heavily on the personal correspondence and plantation records of many other slave owners from across the South, including some of the region’s largest landowners, like South Carolina’s Henry Middleton and Robert F. W. Allston, Louisiana sugar planter John Hampden Randolph, and Mississippi’s John B. Nevitt. He also examines smaller owners, like John Selden, who ran a small operation on Virginia’s James River at the outbreak of the Civil War, and Georgia’s Sam Richard, who purchased his first slave around Christmas 1862. Equally important, especially because of his focus on the production of historical memory, are the personal accounts, diaries in particular, left by the wives and daughters of plantation owners. May examines the personal writings of Sallie McNeill of Brazoria County, Texas, South Carolinian Mary Petigru, Louisianan Eliza Ripley, and Sally Putnam, who experienced the sadness of Christmas during the Civil War in Richmond, Virginia. He supplements his seemingly exhaustive study of personal records with an equally impressive number of state and local newspapers from across the Old South, as well as national publications like The New York Times and Harper’s Weekly. To demonstrate how slaves took advantage of Christmas to escape bondage, May pulls from runaway slave narratives, including John Andrew Jackson’s published account of his escape during Christmas 1846 from Charleston and Henry Bibb’s speech at Faneuil Hall in Boston, where he detailed his harrowing flight from Kentucky.

Tracing the creation of postwar historical memory, May consults many different genres of popular publications, all of which share a common depiction of the paternalistic slave owner. Celina E. Means of Spartanburg, South Carolina, dedicated an entire chapter to Christmas on the antebellum plantation in Thirty-Four Years: An American Story of Southern Life (1878). Louise-Clark Pyrnelle exposed children to southern Christmas mythologies in her book Diddie, Dumps, and Tot, or Plantation Child-Life (1882). While May focuses on many popular nineteenth-century publications, he is sure to note those works that had the furthest reach. Among the most significant was Georgia folklorist Joel Chandler Harris’s multivolume collection of stories, which began with the internationally acclaimed Uncle Remus, His Songs and Sayings: The Folklore of the Old Plantation (1880). As May notes, “Walt Disney adapted Harris’s tales for the screen in his 1946 film Song of the South, exposing them to multitudes of additional Americans” (p. 205).

In the first chapter, May examines how American Christmas traditions affected slaves’ lives. “One way to comprehend Christmas’s impact on the millions of African Americans doing forced labor in the Old South,” May explains, “is to linger on the third syllable of the compound word Christmastime” (p. 31). Since the colonial era, the Christmas holiday had been more important in the American South, where “southern whites kept more of the customs of their transatlantic cousins in England,” than in the North (p. 3). By the antebellum period, Christmas celebrations on southern plantations had become extravagant affairs where many families entertained dozens of guests. In addition, May explains that plantation owners in the Old South “conformed to practices already prevalent in slave societies throughout the hemisphere” by granting enslaved people with small Christmas gifts, including candy, extra rations of food, and textiles to make clothing (p. 20). All told, preparing for Christmas festivities “required especially herculean efforts,” which meant few plantation owners could spare their slaves’ labor by granting extended holidays before or after Christmas (p. 30). For example, South Carolina slaveholder Peyre Thomas noted in his dairy that his slaves normally went back to work on December 28th, when “the Holy days expired” (p. 40).

May pushes back against the popular misconception that most slave owners, including the most notoriously cruel, granted slaves extended holidays around Christmas. Explicitly referencing Eugene Genovese’s assertion that most masters gave slaves a holiday of “five days, a week, or even more,” May notes, “I am not at all certain that his estimate is accurate; rather I believe he gives more credence to southern ‘Yule log’ traditions than he should” (p. 41). Although postwar slavery apologists nostalgically recalled the Christmas holiday as a time where slaves enjoyed at least a weeklong reprieve from plantation labor, May argues that contemporary accounts, especially those made by runaway slaves, only emphasize weeklong holidays because these were atypical as opposed to common practice. Perhaps most importantly, May notes that the dichotomy between work as usual or no work at all is misleading. Even when masters granted formal holidays, whether they be weeklong or the more common two-day breaks, there were “always things that could not be postponed entirely until after the holiday, most especially tending to stock” (p. 46).

May more closely examines slave owners’ gifting practices in the second chapter. Despite the centrality of master paternalism to the Lost Cause narrative, May notes, “Christmas master benevolence ... requires contextualization, including recognition that unsentimental calculations inspired many Christmas giveaways, something rarely conceded in southern mythologies about excessively generous masters motivated by affection for their black servants and field hands” (p. 57). Critically, May explains that masters did not provide their slaves with meaningful gifts beyond basic necessities, including clothing and food, unless these gifts were intended to serve the masters’ needs. This point is particularly strong in May’s examination of masters’ gifting of alcohol. While May notes that some slaveholders actually feared the ramifications of slave drunkenness, especially its effect on future labor and the tendency for inebriation to encourage violence, he notes that many masters, including “that paragon of Enlightenment rationalism Thomas Jefferson,” plied their slaves with alcohol during the holiday in the hopes of mollifying potential agitators (p. 68). While southern mythology also highlights the way generous masters organized slave dances, May notes that these too served slaveholders’ agendas. Describing the “turkey-buzzard dance” invented and preformed regularly on Hammond’s South Carolina plantation, May notes, “just as northern urban theatergoers patronized the ‘pornutopia’ of blackface ... so southern slaveholders engaged in ‘erotic consumption’ of ‘the Other’” (p. 74). Turning to the slave experience, May also explains that when historians only examine masters’ gifting at Christmastime, they ignore “the price slaves paid when compelled during Christmas to submit to holiday pressures from their masters” (p. 79). He suggests that many slaves went along with humiliating practices “to delude self-indoctrinated owners into believing they were a simple folk with simple needs who accepted, and indeed welcomed, their own enslavement” (p. 60).

May also wants to debunk the idea that antebellum white southerners spent Christmastime entirely in celebration. The third chapter addresses the extent to which “southern business activity persisted over Christmas, and the implications of this activity for slaves” (p. 89). Most importantly, as Christmas marked the end of one year and the beginning of another, many slave masters renegotiated leasing contracts over the Christmas holiday. New deals could result in the transfer of human property and breakup of African American families. Thus for many slave families, Christmas was a time of “terror and anxiety” (p. 91). Even if a few slaves were able to exert influence over their masters’ decisions, May reminds us, the majority were at the mercy of their masters’ preferences. Slave traders were also busy during the holiday. In 1834, one trader making the trek from Virginia to Natchez, Mississippi, remarked that he provided the slaves “shirts, hats, sewing materials, and whiskey not out of a Christmas spirit but in order to improve the slaves’ spirits and appearance so they would seem more appealing to potential buyers” (p. 96). Another trader in Savannah noted that he stayed late in his office on Christmas Eve because business had been particularly heavy that day. In slave societies, people could also become Christmas gifts. In what might be the most insidious example of the intersection of slavery and Christmas traditions, one account from a plantation in Florida explained how the owner’s daughter received a black baby girl as a “Christmas present” from one of the family’s servants (p. 102). Although he does not draw explicit parallels, by tracing how slavery and antebellum Christmas practices were intertwined with capitalist structures, May’s study pairs well with other recent studies, like Edward E. Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014).

May uses chapter 4 to more closely investigate one specific Christmas tradition, “Christmas Gif,” common on plantations across the antebellum South. In this game, any two persons meeting for the first time on Christmas Day would compete to be the first to exclaim “Christmas Gif” with the loser being forced to provide the winner with a small gift. Although the game appears rather trivial, as May explains more clearly in chapter 7, it later became one of the most prevalent and mythicized customs described in postwar nostalgic literature. In May’s telling, however, “Christmas Gif” is not an example of master benevolence or paternalism, nor does the game somehow demonstrate slave agency within antebellum Christmas traditions. Instead, May explains, “‘Christmas Gif’ suggests a ritual reaffirmation of master power within the context of a competitive game stacked to give slaves a superficial victory, a kind of temporary role reversal acceptable within the bounds that was not without parallels in class-stratified European rural society” (p. 110). If scholars are interested in recognizable autonomy within Christmas tradition, May suggests they look more closely at the custom known as “John Canoe.” As May explains, “John Canoe involved male performers who donned exotic-looking garments and accessories made out of animal skins and rags and marched from place to place as they shouted, played music, clattered bones, hit triangles, and danced and gyrated” (p. 113).  While to some degree these John Canoe performances mirror Christmas dances in their nature as spectacle, May believes this practice “purposely inserted African behaviors and cultural survivals into their passing programs” (p. 116).

Having outlined southern Christmas traditions and the slave experience during Christmastime, May turns in chapter 5 to the paradox at the center of his study. Although antebellum slaveholders and postwar Americans emphasized Christmas as a time of merriment and camaraderie on southern plantations, the historical record demonstrates that southerners “had cause to worry more about rebellions at Christmas than at other times” (p. 125). Even if most plantation owners were less generous than the mythos admits, owners needed to be somewhat accommodating during the holiday if they hoped to maintain at least some level of cooperation. Most owners allowed their slaves to travel to other plantations at Christmas to attend feasts and dances or visit relatives. This reality created a general feeling of unease and apprehension among southern slaveholders around the holiday that helps upend the paternalist vision of Christmas on the antebellum plantation. Looking more broadly, May notes, “A statistically astounding one-third of all known slave conspiracies and rebellions in Britain’s sugar-producing West Indies colonies [were] either attempted or planned in December,” with the most destructive, Jamaica’s “Baptist War,” ignited the day after Christmas in 1831 (p. 128). In the United States, May notes that much of Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy, which shook Charleston from May to July 1822, had been planned during the previous Christmas holiday. As abolitionists increased their efforts to reach slave populations in the South after 1830, a number of insurrection scares occurred in December. Most notably, in 1856, a panic that stretched from Texas to Georgia concerning a universal Christmastime uprising led to more slaves being hanged throughout the South “than had been executed for complicity with Nat Turner’s bloody 1831 affair” (p. 139). Clearly, Christmastime panics over slavery prove the holiday was not defined by general merriment.

May also takes chapter 5 to explain that as the breakup of the Union became increasingly likely, “holiday activities became virtually intertwined with the politics of secession” (p. 144). This connection was so strong that one Charleston resident saw future South Carolinians celebrating Christmas and independence in tandem. But increased southern pride in their Christmas celebrations was met with northern rebuke. Northerners were quick to point out how southern fears of slave insurrections undermined their insistence on the paternalist side of slavery. These anti-southern voices increasingly championed the stories of runaway slaves, many of whom had escaped during the Christmas holiday, to condemn the evils of slavery. Ultimately, May argues, these Christmastime runaways, and the condemnations that came from the North, “threatened antebellum southern slaveholders more than did phantoms of Yuletide rebels and would continue to do so after the war with the North broke out in the spring of 1861” (p. 154).

In chapter 6, May turns to the Christmas celebrations during the Civil War years and explains that, despite southerners’ best efforts, each holiday saw a deterioration of traditional practices and customs, meaning that “declension rather than normality, stress rather than celebration” defined Christmases during the war (p. 161). With normal Christmastime fears exacerbated by the advancement of Union troops, slaveholders attempted to “encourage continued loyalty among their slaves with gifts” even as rations ran low. Equally important, masters continued to grant “enslaved people expected holiday time off and travel privileges, further fostering the impression that little had changed or was likely to change regarding their bondage” (p. 174). But with so many masters, overseers, and masters’ sons serving in the Confederate Army, and with war soaking up precious resources, many plantation owners found it increasingly difficult to manipulate slave behavior during Christmastime as the war dragged on. Even if plantation owners and the deputy wives attempted to convey a sense of normality during Christmastime, May posits, “It seems safe to suggest that household and plantation holiday cutbacks under wartime duress fostered attitudinal changes among slaves” (p. 178). Furthermore, building on the work of Stephanie McCurry (Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South [2010]), May notes that when slaveholders placed demands on state governments to protect property from imagined Christmastime insurrections, they actually undermined “Confederate strategic needs” (p. 138).

Christmas 1865 marked “a kind of grim finale to a long-running scenario that had been playing out over generations, since white southerners never again experienced a regionwide Christmas insurrection panic” (p. 197). But, as May traces throughout chapter 7, an imagined Christmastime in the antebellum South would play an important role as former Confederates sought a way to justify their past, so long as the Christmastime panics could be erased. “Southern whites,” May explains, “found it convenient to forget, or subconsciously repress, that they or their ancestors had feared holiday revolts in the first place.” “Recalling such panics,” he continues, “would have been inconvenient in constructing the legend of the Lost Cause” (p. 198). May adeptly traces how southern writers, mostly after Reconstruction ended, reimagined and romanticized antebellum Christmas without the slave markets, forced labor, or gifting of slave children. By analyzing dozens of publications, the vast majority authored by southern women, May demonstrates that southern whites well into the early twentieth century relied on popular “tropes about antebellum Christmas customs to legitimize their region’s coercive labor system” (p. 221). Surprisingly, May reveals that “twentieth-century idealizations of the antebellum slave Christmas experience had Yankee collaborators,” including important abolitionists like Harriet Beecher Stowe (p. 222). Former slaves also spoke fondly about Christmas on the plantation. But, as May is quick to point out, such ruminations likely reflect African Americans’ desire to “repress memories of slave times, including Christmas, as a kind of ‘prehistory,’ upsetting to recall much less write or speak publicly about” (p. 235).

May concludes, “By erasing holiday revolt panics and Christmas slave whippings and sales from the heartwarming postwar narratives they constructed about antebellum holiday times, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century southern white writers and their Yankee accomplices coroneted Christmas in the Old South and forged literary conventions persisting to this day” (p. 239). Lest the reader doubt his conclusions, May uses an epilogue to highlight how modern Christmastime tours of plantation homes, which make up a considerable portion of revenue generated throughout the year, regularly omit the Christmas experience for enslaved workers, or worse, reiterate paternalistic tropes. As May powerfully argues, the real danger of these modern iterations of the Lost Cause narrative is that these interpretations render slavery “redeemable” and suggest that generations of African Americans’ enslavement was “justified by their oppressors on the logic of white supremacy” (p. 258).

Yuletide in Dixie is a masterful study of not only the intersection of Christmas traditions and slavery but also the collective ideology that supported the institution for centuries and continues to haunt historical memory today. May uses his study of Christmas in the Old South and command of the literature to build on a number of important historiographical traditions concerning the institution of slavery in the United States, the American slave experience, and historical memory in postwar America. The only areas of the work where May seems to make claims beyond his sources are in a few of the connections he makes beyond American borders. For example, although May never explicitly states that American plantation owners borrowed Christmas traditions from Spanish and Portuguese colonies, he seems to suggest that Americans learned Christmas gifting practices from their colonial neighbors without fleshing out the link between the different colonial societies or touching on important differences between Protestant Americans and Catholic Spanish and Portuguese colonists. Similarly, while he suggests that the practice of “Christmas Gif” resembled similar class-based role reversal games in Europe, he does not provide an example of these European customs or an explanation of their context. But these are minor critiques of an exhaustive and illuminating study that makes a valuable addition to our understanding of both American slavery and the construction of historical memory.

Citation: G. Patrick O'Brien. Review of May, Robert E., Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory. H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews. January, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54775

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.