Friday, December 25, 2009

A Frederick Douglass Christmas

(Ignore the earlier post -- it wasn't done yet. I hit "Publish" instead of "Save", and couldn't get Blogger to cut and paste the darn text so that I could just delete and start over.)

Seems that, along with Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch (and myself), Frederick Douglass was no fan of Christmas. Here is what he writes of the celebration under slavery:

My term of actual service to Mr. Edward Covey ended on Christmas day, 1833. The days between Christmas and New Year's day are allowed as holidays; and, accordingly, we were not required to perform any labor, more than to feed and take care of the stock. This time we regarded as our own, by the grace of our masters; and we therefore used or abused it nearly as we pleased. Those of us who had families at a distance, were generally allowed to spend the whole six days in their society. This time, however, was spent in various ways. The sober, staid, thinking and industrious ones of our number would employ themselves in making corn-brooms, mats, horse-collars, and baskets; and another class of us would spend the time in hunting opossums,* hares, and coons. But by far the larger part engaged in such sports and merriments as ball playing, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whiskey; and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable tot he feelings of our masters. A slave who would work during the holidays was considered by our masters as scarcely deserving them. He was regarded as one who rejected the favor of his master. It was deemed a disgrace not to get drunk at Christmas; and he was regarded as lazy indeed, who had not provided himself with the necessary means, during the year, to get whisky enough to last him through Christmas.

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. Were the slaveholders at once to abandon this practice, I have not the slightest doubt it would lead to an immediate insurrection among the slaves. 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. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it. this will be seen by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object sees to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed: many of us weer led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum. So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field, -- feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, form what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery

Needless to say, Douglass was a temperance man. I'm not sure if I buy his conclusions here. I do buy that the drunken holiday did act as a safety valve. Woe be to the master who did not allow this holiday, as the overseer at Chatham Manor in Virginia discovered when he ordered slaves back to work to early in 1805. A rebellion did ensue. Still, did a drunken revelry really serve to convince slaves that "we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum"? Note his use of the pronoun "we." Did that fleeting thought pass through young Frederick Bailey's mind one hung-over morning? Did the thought shock him?

Even as this drunken Christmas served the master, it was also the common way among rural communities of celebrating the yuletide before the nineteenth century. In the nineteenth century, the urban middle classes began to seize cultural control of the holiday to develop a more sober, family-centered holiday.

The abolitionists, too, were part of this. The annual Boston Anti-slavery Fair was held just before Christmas each year, and they promoted the wares as excellent gifts. Gift-giving in those days was not the capitalist free-for-all, equating presents with love, as it is today. Instead, people exchanged thoughtful, practical gifts, such as books. The Liberty Bell, an annual collection of anti-slavery poem, stories, and essays, was one of those "gift books." The Anti-slavery Fair also featured one of the early Christmas tree displays.

Douglass himself aspired to the urban middle class. Over the years, he grew to shun many of the features of African-American folk life, regarding them as "primitive." This passage above indicates his adoption of that middle class ethic of work, even on the holidays (something to which many academics can relate), and temperance (something to which many academics do not relate), as well as his rejection of much of the rural traditions of Christmas. He directly indicts the drinking, but he classifies drinking with the "ball-playing, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing." All, again, were features of the rural celebration.

This is a rich passage about Christmas. Douglass describes a slave celebration on the Eastern Shore. He also explains a means of mastery, of control through rewards rather than punishments. Yet, in his tone, he reveals his own adoption of temperance, the transformation of his own sensibilities, and the transformation of the holiday of Christmas itself.

You can find the description in Chapter X of the Narrative. It occurs in the chapter in which Douglass describes his life at Edward Covey's plantation, where he was sent to be "broken." The passage appears directly after his fight with Covey.

I ripped off all of the Christmas stuff from Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas.

Happy Holiday to everyone!** With all due respect to Douglass, I will be having a decidedly un-temperate day.

* Hee! He mentions hunting 'possum.
**Yeah, I use the Happy Holiday -- inclusion is not a war, and I like the alliteration.

1 comment:

Digger said...

Interesting! Celebration as a means of control... I'll think about it more after I've either been intemperate a little more or after I recover. And yay for inclusiveness; I've never understood how being inclusive of other realities minimizes any of them...


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