There’s Nothing Festive About a “Plantation Christmas”

With plantation weddings finally falling out of fashion, it’s time to end the lie that holiday cheer and human bondage can coexist.

Collage of half a plantation house and half a Christmas wreath.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by MSMcCarthy_Photography/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Povareshka/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

2019 was the year it finally became socially unacceptable to use a historic plantation as a wedding venue. Earlier this month, prodded by the group Color of Change, four wedding websites said they would stop (or limit) the promotion of such venues on their pages. Many people—save, perhaps, those who already possess framed photos of themselves kissing on an oak-lined lane at Lively/Reynolds-famous Boone Hall Plantation in South Carolina—thought this was obviously the correct move. “There’s no way to separate the beauty and the violence of plantations,” Emma Walcott-Wilson, who’s studying plantation tourism at the University of Tennessee, told BuzzFeed News’ Clarissa-Jan Lim. “They are the same in many respects. The people who built that beauty were enslaved people.”

Next up: Christmas. Earlier this month, a coalition of Alabama activists sent a letter to officials of the Alabama Historical Commission, protesting a “Plantation Christmas” event that had been held at the Belle Mont Mansion in Tuscumbia. “The celebration of a ‘Plantation Christmas’ represents a willful ignorance of the experience of enslaved people and a concocted memory of a joyous, white supremacist Christmas celebration,” the letter read. While some historic plantations have tried, in recent years, to incorporate more information on slavery into their official tours and exhibits, a Christmas event is always going to be something different. Because such tours and parties are meant to be enchanting, they are, like weddings, a romanticization of plantation life. And as such, they’re indefensible.

The “plantation Christmas” celebrations held every year at historic plantations across the South use trappings of the holiday—family! decorations! childhood!—to separate the violence of these places from their beauty. I knew this, but it wasn’t until I read historian Robert May’s recent book Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory that I understood how the story of “plantation Christmas” has long been providing this kind of cover to Lost Cause ideology. From the antebellum years of 1830–60, through the Civil War, and especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the myth of the Lost Cause solidified, apologists for slavery loved to talk about Christmas whenever they were defending the “Southern way of life.”

The key components of this mythical plantation Christmas were the tokens of generosity supposedly extended from slaveholders to the enslaved: gifts, time off, alcohol, and food. May cites William J. Grayson’s 1854 book The Hireling and the Slave—a response in verse to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which Grayson compared slavery favorably to the North’s free labor system—as a classic in the genre of the plantation Christmas myth. Here’s how Grayson talked about the things enslavers supposedly gave their bondspeople around the time of Christmas:

Around the slaughtered ox—a Christmas prize,
The slaves assembling stand with eager eyes,
Rouse, with their dogs, the porker’s piercing cry,
Or drag its squealing tenant from the sty;
With smile and bow receive their winter dues,
The strong, warm clothing and substantial shoes,
Blankets adorned with stripes of border red,
And caps of wool that warm the woolier head;
Then clear the barn, the ample area fill,
In the gay jig display their vigorous skill

Christmas, in this tale that slavery’s antebellum defenders told, was a magical time. Enslaved people were allowed to visit neighboring plantations to see family; they could rest from work for days or even a week; they could take any goods they’d managed to produce, or animals they’d raised, over the course of the year to market.

More than that (this story goes), enslaved people could expect, on Christmas, to experience a brief inversion of the relationship between the slaveholder and the bondsperson. Pro-slavery accounts of antebellum Christmases had slaveholding wives up late at night, sewing scarves for the women they held in bondage; slaveholders patted themselves on the back for working hard to provide every enslaved person with a wrapped gift and a word of cheer. How, with all this supposed generosity, could anyone say that slaveholders didn’t have their “people” ’s best interests in mind?

But May questions whether Christmas was ever really such a lavish celebration. “A surprising number of documents show masters playing Scrooge rather than Santa over the holiday season,” May writes. “Some slaveholders gave their human property little or nothing at all for Christmas; many provided Christmas payoffs to slaves less from Yuletide goodwill than to channel potential slave discontent into acceptable behaviors and to incentivize harder labor from slaves in the future,” he adds. Not to mention the fact that, as May finds, the buying and selling of people didn’t necessarily cease over the holidays. And while some slaveholders suspended the practice of whipping enslaved children over the break (such kindness!), there’s other evidence that some had no problem administering a Christmas punishment.

In some ways, as May acknowledges, any back-and-forth about the exact character of the historic “plantation Christmas” is irrelevant. Even if antebellum slaveholders truly were as generous as they thought they were over the holidays, their “kindness” is nothing compared to the enormity of the rest of bondage.

Take the traditional holiday privilege of a Christmas travel pass to see relatives that had been sold away to other plantations. The existence of this one week of sanctioned togetherness only highlights the overwhelming awfulness of the rest of the year. Imagine being able to see your child only once a year—and, as May documents happened on at least one plantation, imagine if that much-anticipated Christmas travel pass were to get taken away in the weeks before the holiday, as a punishment? Or take the idea of getting new clothes or blankets for Christmas. Slaveholders had to clothe bondspeople at some point, May points out; by giving them clothes or blankets as a yearly “gift,” they were able to perform generosity while staying within a preexisting budget for bare necessities. This wasn’t generosity—it was control.

And, if they were so convinced that Christmas gifts and parties and passes made enslaved people grateful, why was Christmas also the time when slaveholders panicked over possible revolts? May finds many instances of such Christmas panic from colonial times throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Those who accused Denmark Vesey of planning a revolt in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1822 said that he had started talking about it at Christmas the year before. Often, May points out, in the years before the war, a Christmas panic came after an abolitionist push. Following the publication of abolitionist David Walker’s Appeal in 1829, during the Christmas of 1830, slaveholders in North Carolina formed Christmas patrols and searched black people’s houses for any printed matter, whipping them if they found it.

By the time plantation Christmas was being mythologized in print in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, any talk of these Christmas panics disappeared in the course of commemoration of the holiday tradition. “Recalling such panics,” May points out, “would have been inconvenient in constructing the legend of the Lost Cause.”

In today’s traditional “plantation Christmas” events, we’ve taken this erasure one step further. At many contemporary “plantation Christmases,” according to a few accounts written by historians who’ve attended them out of curiosity, the entire matter of enslaved people’s experience of Christmas—be that myth or reality—is gone. In 2016, historian Brandon Byrd took a holiday-themed tour of Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville, Tennessee, and heard virtually nothing about enslaved people. At the conclusion of the tour, the guide directed them to the slave cabins, telling the visitors they could go there on their own time, if they wanted to explore the lives of the black people who had lived on the place.

In the prologue to her 2010 book The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story, historian Tiya Miles describes a Christmas candlelight tour that she took at Georgia’s Chief Vann House in 2006. When Miles went to the cellar of the house, she encountered “a lone volunteer, dressed in period clothing, standing ready to describe the cold, desolate rooms” where enslaved people had worked. She was the only one there: “Unlike the above-ground rooms that hummed with the movement of scores of guests, this space that formed the home’s foundation was quiet, empty.”

Some plantations, like Virginia’s Ben Lomond Plantation, have, in recent years, tried to incorporate stories of enslaved people’s experiences into the annual Christmas tour. But it seems almost impossible to square the feelings a candlelight tour or Christmastime dinner is supposed to evoke—bewitchment, enchantment, a state of transportation to “another time” that was supposedly fancier and better than our own—and the brutal truth of the history of enslavement. In 2015, a plantation Christmas at Virginia’s Gunston Hall drew criticism on social media, and its executive director told Mother Jones, in the venue’s defense, that this event was supposed to be “educational.” Mother Jones’ Miles E. Johnson was skeptical, noticing that the historic site’s web promotion of the event called it “a celebration of the season.” The criticism seems to have had little effect. This event was held again this year, on Dec. 7, and was described like this on the site’s Facebook page: “Celebrating our annual Christmastide at Gunston Hall program … The evening hours provide a romantic holiday experience by candlelight.”

I’ll end with one account of a Christmas during slavery that May invokes in his book. A daughter of a slaveholding family wrote in her memoir that, one antebellum Christmas, she got as a present a weeks-old black infant, who was presented to her in a cotton nest in the Christmas tree, along with “a deed that made him mine.” She named him—her future coachman—“Kriss,” and was allowed to hold him briefly, before he was taken away to the slave quarters to be raised, until he could work for her.

Though, May writes, it’s not clear whether this utterly horrific story was made up, “it is a telling reminder of what slave Christmases were really about.” We are past the world where a person would include such a tale as a moving memory in an autobiography and expect readers to be charmed. Today’s plantation Christmases are not grotesque in this obvious way; instead, they appear at first glance to be anodyne, just a chance to visit pretty houses bedecked in “vintage”-seeming decorations, gesturing vaguely toward a “Christmas past.” But underneath the garlands, the truth remains.