Christmas Gif…Celebrating de Big Times

We have just passed Christmas, a time of year where we gather with family and have a good time. Some of us will have attended “Ugly Christmas Sweater Parties” or the office holiday shindig. Others will have struggled with the politically correct ways to spread cheer, stuttering over “Merry-Happy-I mean…Seasons Greetings!” and others will have been focused on finishing that last bit of shopping, gathering gifts for those they love and hoping to get gifts in return. We will have watched the Christmas specials and remember days of Christmas past. And don’t even act like you don’t get a little choked up when Linus completely breaks down Christmas and what it really means. ( )

But with our subject matter being those who were enslaved and did not enjoy the lead up of Christmas with Black Friday and other retail insanity to who pudding and roast beast, what was Christmas like? Thankfully, there are plenty of accounts of Christmas, or as the slaves called it, de Big Times. This was a period about 1-4 days given to the slaves where the plantation would kind of shut it down and celebrate. But…seeing how the Big House was probably doing entertaining, there was still some work to be done around the house and in the kitchen. Hams, Turkeys, Chickens and sides of beef don’t handle themselves you know.

What I find the most interesting is that the accounts really focus on the lives of the field slaves and how they celebrated de Big Times with much merriment and visitation of loved ones on other plantations. You’ll read about the parties that they would have, the rations of whiskey and extra rations of foods handed out this time of year. You’ll hear about the slave children running up to Massa or Missus crying, “Christmas Gif!!” with the hopes of getting a trinket or two. Or lining up at the Big House to receive whatever gifts their owners bestowed upon them for their year of “service”. When you read some of these narratives, the whole thing seems a little patronizing and pretentious to be quite honest. I try not to look at accounts with a modern eye, as they can irritate the living daylights out of you. Instead, I try to look at these events from the eyes of those who lived it. Sure, it may seem patronizing to have the person that owns you look at you with an almost loving gaze as they hand you clothing, extra food and perhaps a few dollars in exchange for all the dollars you have made them. The almost begging nature of the children running around behind the whites crying out for their “Christmas gif”, or the absolute drunkenness that some slaves did find themselves a part of after enjoying just one cup of whiskey too many. But somewhere, this time of year was liberating for some slaves. The kids may not at that point in their life truly understood their station and what their life would actually become, but even they felt liberation.  No it’s not the liberation that involved them no longer belonging to someone else. It was that moment that even for a few days the slaves had an opportunity to be. To run around and get those gifts, to have that extra drink. To be able to see their family.  No one should have to get a pass to see their family members, but when they did, can you imagine the joyous celebrations that took place? The only thing  I could even barely compare it to would be when loved ones who have been deployed are reunited.

When interpreting de Big Times, I was often amazed at how some visitors would miss those key ideas of enjoying family, seeing loved ones, and a larger community helping each other out. They would look for something that they knew about slavery, whether it be true or otherwise. The clearest example I have of this is when we mentioned whiskey in one scenario. The scene called for 3 slaves to have a conversation about Christmas and wonder why in the world is this random field slave running away in the cold, ill equipped to make this journey. When he came inside the cabin, he was tended to by the fire, and given whiskey to break his fever (a remedy used apparently by a lot of older generations who remembered having a shot with grandma when they were sick). While the scenario showed this larger community coming together to help one of their own during a time of celebration. A part of me did not want to even mention alcohol because I knew that there was a perception that slaves would get drunk and cause all types of chaos. But we did it anyway. Had a lot of people ask me after the scenario if there was really whiskey and few elbow nudges and winks suggesting that I and my fellow interpreters were passing the jug around between scenes. Sigh. There’s always someone right? What the majority of visitors did see (thankfully!) was that while the slaves were out celebrating and visiting and cherishing time with loved ones, they were also looking out for one another, and giving back what little had been given to them. The slaves knew that after de Big Times were over, there was the settling of the books and the new year where families could be separated either by sale or rental. Christmas was the biggest time of the year for them with the New Year being the scariest. What would happen when the books settled and the financial smoke cleared? The next post will talk about that.

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