Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas Cheer on the Plantation

 

“The great fete of the people was Christmas. [All] times and seasons paled and dimmed before the festive joys of Christmas. It had been handed down for generations…it had come over with their forefathers. It had a peculiar significance. It was a title. Religion had given it its benediction. It was the time to “Shout the glad tidings.” It was The Holidays.

There were other holidays for the slaves, both of the school-room and the plantation, such as Easter and Whit-Monday; but Christmas was distinctively “The Holidays.”

Then the boys came home from college with their friends; the members of the family who moved away returned; pretty cousins came for the festivities; the neighborhood grew merry; the negroes were all to have a holiday, the house-servants taking turn and turn about, and the plantation made ready for Christmas cheer.

The corn was got in; the hogs were killed; the lard “tried”; sausage-meat made; mince-meat prepared; the turkeys fattened, with “the big old gobbler” specially devoted to the “Christmas dinner”;  the servants new shoes and winter clothes stored away ready for distribution; and the plantation began to be ready to prepare for Christmas.

In the first place, there was generally a cold spell which froze up everything and enabled the ice-houses to be filled. The wagons all were put to hauling wood – hickory; nothing but hickory now; other wood might do for other times, but at Christmas only hickory was used; and the wood-pile was heaped high with the logs…

In the midst of it came the wagon or ox-cart from “the depot,” with the big white boxes of Christmas things, the black driver feigning hypocritical indifference as he drove through the choppers to the storeroom. Then came the rush of all the wood-cutters to help him unload…as they pretended to strain in lifting, of what “master” or “mistis” was going to give them out of those boxes, uttered just loud enough to reach their master’s or mistress’s ears where they stood looking on, while the driver took due advantage of his temporary prestige to give many pompous cautions and directions.

The getting the evergreens and mistletoe was the sign that Christmas had come, was really here. There were the parlor and hall and dining-room, and, above all, the old church, to be “dressed.”  The last was a neighborhood work; all united in it, and it was one of the events of the year.

Then by “Christmas Eve’s eve” the wood was all cut and stacked high in the wood-house and on and under the back porticos, so as to be handy, and secure from the snow which was almost certain to come. The excitement increased; the boxes were unpacked, some of them openly, to the general delight, others with a mysterious secrecy which stimulated the curiosity to its highest point and added to the charm of the occasion.

The kitchen filled up with assistants famed for special skill in particular branches of the cook’s art, who bustled about with glistening faces and shining teeth, proud of their elevation and eager to add to the general cheer.

It was now Christmas Eve.  From time to time the “hired out” servants came home from Richmond where they had been hired or had hired out themselves, their terms having been common custom framed, with due regard to their rights to the holiday, to expire in time for them to spend the Christmas at home.  There was much hilarity over their arrival, with their new winter clothes donned a little ahead of time, they came to pay their “bespecs” to master and mistis.

Later on the children were got to bed, scarce able to keep in their pallets for excitement; the stockings were all hung up over the big fireplace; and the grown people grew gay in the crowded parlors. Next morning before light the stir began. White-clad little figures stole about in the gloom, with bulging stockings clasped to their bosoms, opening doors, shouting “Christmas gift!” into dark rooms at sleeping elders, and then scurrying away like so many white mice, squeaking with delight, to rake open the embers and inspect their treasures. At prayers, “Shout the glad tidings” was sung by fresh young voices with due fervor.

How gay the scene was at breakfast! What pranks had been performed in the name of Santa Claus! The larger part of the day was spend in going to and coming from the beautifully dressed church, where the service was read, and the anthems and hymns were sung by everybody, for every one was happy.

Dinner was the great event. It was the test of the mistress and the cook, or, rather, the cooks; for the kitchen now was full of them. The old mahogany table, stretched diagonally across the ding room, groaned; the big gobbler filled the pace of honor; a great round of beef held the second place; an old ham, with every other dish that ingenuity, backed by long experience, could devise, was at the side, and the shining sideboard, gleaming with glass, scarcely held the dessert. After dinner there were apple-toddy and egg-nogg, as there had been before.

There were negro parties, where the ladies and gentlemen went to look on, the suppers having been superintended by the mistresses, and the tables being decorated by their own white hands. There was almost sure to be a negro wedding during the holidays. The ceremony might be performed in the dining-room or in the hall by the master, or in a quarter by a colored preacher; but it was a gay occasion, and the dusky bride’s trousseau had been arranged by her young mistress, and the family was on hand to get fun out of the entertainment.”

(The Old South, Essays Social and Political, Charles Scribner’s & Sons, 1892, pp. 174-183)

The North Carolina War Between the States Sesquicentennial Commission
“Christmas in the Old South”

2 comments:

  1. Phyllis (N/W Jersey)December 25, 2012 at 7:04 PM

    What an amazing peek into the past. Thank you for these postings; we really get to learn about the South that was never taught in school.
    Interesting reading from NCWBTS. Thank you again and Merry Christmas!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are more than welcome, Ma'am. A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year also!

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