Christmas Days in Old Virginia (complete text)
In 1907, Booker T. Washington wrote about his memories of Christmas in Franklin County in an article written for both Suburban Life and Tuskegee Student magazines.
In Virginia, where I was born, Christmas lasts not one day but a week, sometimes longer - at least, that is the way it was in the old slave days. Looking back to those days, when Christmas, for me, was a much more momentous event than it is now, it seems to me that there was a certain charm about that Virginia Christmas time, a peculiar fragrance in the atmosphere, a something which I cannot define, and which does not exist elsewhere in the same degree, where it has been my privilege to spend the Christmas season.
In the first place, more is made of the Christmas season in Virginia, or used to be, than in most other states. Furthermore, at the time to which I refer, people lived more in the country than they do now; and the country, rather than the city, is the place for one to get wholesome enjoyment out of the Christmas season. There is nothing in a crowded life that can approach the happiness and general good feeling which one may have in the country, especially when the snow is upon the ground, the trees are glittering with icicles, and the Christmas odors are in the air.
Christmas was the great event of the whole year to the slaves throughout the south, and in Virginia, during the days of slavery, the colored people used to begin getting ready for Christmas weeks beforehand. It was the season when, in many cases, the slaves who had been hired out to other masters came home to visit their families. Perhaps the husband had been away from his wife for twelve months; he was permitted on Christmas to come home. Perhaps children had been hired out in another part of the state, or another part of the country, away from their mothers for six to twelve months; they were permitted to come home at Christmas.
It was made known during these holidays which slaves were to remain on the home plantation, which ones were to be hired out to the neighboring farmers, and which ones were to be sold. It was an important period to the slaves in many ways, but the feelings of joy at the reunion of the family prevailed above all others.
There were a number of festivities which led up to Christmas and prepared for it. One of them was the corn-shucking. No one who has not actually experienced an old-fashioned corn-shucking in Virginia can understand exactly what I mean. These corn-shucking bees, or whatever the may be called, took place during the last of November, or the first half of December. As I have said, they were a prelude to the festivities of the Christmas season. Usually they were held upon one of the larger and wealthier plantations in the neighborhood. After all the corn had been gathered, thousands of bushels sometimes, it would be piled up in the shape of a mound, often to the height of fifty or sixty feet. Invitations would be sent around by the master himself to the neighboring planters, inviting their slaves on a certain night to attend the corn-shucking. In response to these invitations as many as one or two hundred men, women and children would come together.
When all were assembled around the pile of corn, some one individual, who had already gained a reputation as a leader in singing, would climb on top of the mound and begin at once, in clear, loud tones, a solo – a song of the corn-shucking season – a kind of singing which I am sorry to say has very largely passed from memory and practice. After leading off in this way, in clear, distinct tones, the chorus at the base of the mound would join in, some hundred voices strong. The words, which were largely improvised, were very simple and suited to the occasion, and more often than not they had the flavor of the camp-meeting rather than any more secular proceeding. Such singing I have never heard on any other occasion. There was something wild and weird about that music, such as will never again be hear in America.
While the singing was going on, hundreds of hands were busily engaged in shucking corn. The corn-shucking and the music would continue, perhaps, until ten o’clock at night. The music made the work light and pleasant. In a very short time, almost before any one realized it, hundreds of bushels of corn had been shucked. About that time a break would come. Everybody would be invited to a grove or some convenient place for supper, which was served in a sumptuous manner. After an hour, perhaps, spent around the table, the corn shucking, with more music, was begun again, and continued until late into the night, often into the early hours of the morning.
This was one of the incidents which usually proceeded a Virginia Christmas time. There is another which I still vividly remember. It was at this season that the year’s crop of hogs was killed, and the meat for the ensuing year was cured and stored away in the smokehouse. This came, as a rule, during the week before Christmas, and was, as I recollect it, one of the annual diversions of plantation life. I recall the great blazing fire flaring up in the darkness of the night, and grown men and women moving about in the flickering shadows. I remember with what feelings of mingled horror and hungry anticipation I looked at the long rows of hogs hung on the fence-rail, preparatory to being cut up and salted away for the year. For days after this event every slave cabin was supplied with materials for a sumptuous feast.
Such simple and commonplace diversions as these broke the monotony of plantation life. Coming directly as they did before the Christmas holidays, they served to emphasize in the minds of the slaves the joyous season they ushered in.
Christmas itself, as I have said, meant a cessation of work for a week at least, and often as long as ten days. Christmas day the slaves would each receive something in the way of a present. The master who gave no present to his slaves was looked down upon by his fellow-masters. He was considered unworthy to be classed among slave-holding aristocracy. The presents, in most cases, consisted of a new suit of clothes, or a new pair of shoes. I remember that the first pair of shoes I ever had the opportunity if wearing came to me in the shape of a Christmas present. Later on, when the war was going on between the North and South, we felt the pinch of hard times on our plantation. I received as a Christmas present a pair of wooden shoes - that is, the uppers were composed of leather, but the soles were composed of hickory wood.
In those days, the old people, as well as the young, used to hang up their stockings. The household slaves, and many who worked in the field as well, would hang their stockings in their master’s or mistress’s rooms. The children usually hung their stockings in the cabins of their parents. It has been my pleasure and privilege to receive many Christmas presents, but I do not think I ever had a present that made me feel more happy than those I received during what was, as I remember, the last Christmas I spent in slavery. I awoke at four o’clock in the morning in my mother’s cabin, and creeping over to the chimney, I found my stocking well-filled with pieces of red candy and nearly half a dozen ginger cakes. In addition to these were the little wooden shoes with the leather tops, which I mentioned.
The Christmas season ended with the cutting of the “Yule Log” for the next Christmas. My readers will know something of the “Yule Log,” but will scarcely understand what the custom meant in the old days in the South, unless they have seen the “Yule Log” cut, and have counted he days that it burned.
On many of the plantations in Virginia it was the custom for the men to go out into the swamps on the last day of the Christmas season, select the biggest, toughest and greenest hardwood tree they could find, and cut it in shape to fit the fireplace in the master’s room. Afterwards this log would be sunk into water, where it would remain the entire succeeding year. On the first day of the following Christmas, it would be taken out of the water; the slaves would go into the master’s room before he got out of bed on Christmas morning, and with a song and other ceremonies, would place this log on the fireplace of the master, and would light it with fire.
It was understood that the holiday season would last until this log had been burned into two parts. Of course, the main point in the selection of the “Yule Log” was to get one that would be tough and unburnable, so that it would last as many days as possible. At the burning out of the log, there was usually another ceremony of song. This meant that Christmas was over.
As I look back in my memory to those Christmas days, thus spent as a slave-boy in Virginia. The present stiff and staid customs, which prevail, especially in the larger cities, seem to me “flat, stale, and unprofitable.”
Again I repeat, that in my opinion the real Christmas must be spent in the country, and I cannot but feel that there is in the Virginia Christmas atmosphere a fragrance and an influence which is not to be found elsewhere.”