Amid contentious national push-back over how much of the full history of slavery in the United States should be taught in schools, the holiday season represents a particularly overlooked period. Around the time Christmas was starting to become a national holiday in the late-19th century, propagandists of the Lost Cause—the myth that the Civil War was fought for states rights and not for slavery—were trying to re-frame what happened in the South during the antebellum era.
While they lost the war, one way they tried to win hearts and minds—and political power—was by telling romanticized stories about Christmastime. These accounts supported the Confederate myth that enslaved people appreciated their masters and mistresses, often describing them dancing and feasting and taking part in Christmas gift exchanges with the families who enslaved them.But the myth couldn’t be further from the reality. Many enslaved people spent the holidays worrying about getting sold or faced violence like whippings.
Some like Henry Bibb picked Christmas Day in 1837 to escape to freedom; in his 1849 memoirs, he writes about deciding to make “a bolt for Liberty or consent to die a Slave” by paddling across the river from Kentucky to Ohio after his plantation owner gave enslaved persons some time around the holiday to work for themselves .For his 2019 book Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory, historian Robert E. May reviewed plantation owners’ diaries, periodicals, memoirs, as well as oral accounts from those formerly enslaved to see what really happened on plantations at Christmas.
Here, he talks to TIME about the most shocking examples and how unpacking Lost Cause myths can help tell a fuller picture of the history of slavery.What is the value of looking at Christmastime as a lens to study this period of slavery during the Civil War and in the antebellum period?[If] we really want to understand why America’s bloodiest war occurred in the first place, we must recognize the important part Christmas played in Civil War causation. Many of the figures who were involved in the coming Civil War spoke out on Christmas on one side or the other.
I wouldn’t say that you can understand the Confederate defeat from studying Christmas in the Confederacy, but you can [see that] southerners tried to create a national identity that was partly molded around Christmas.I think historians have mostly overlooked the link between northern anti-slavery politics and the Christmas slave insurrection panics that occurred in the South.
These panics often occurred over Christmastime because the guard of white people was down. Southern whites knew that there was a history of slave insurrections coming from the Caribbean and South America. Some of the worst insurrections of all time occurred over Christmas in places like Jamaica .And of course, some enslaved people in the U.S. were rounded up [when there were] rumors of these insurrections and, without any real evidence at all, were executed by vigilante groups.