Frederick Douglass: Christmas Holiday used as 'Safety Valve' by Masters

gem

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#1
https://medium.com/@Limerick1914/fr...fety-valve-of-christmas-holidays-f484fb26e66f

Interestingly, Frederick Douglass considered the Christmas Holiday a tool used by masters to keep slaves tame.

As discussed below , Douglass wrote, "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.​


from the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Written by Himself (1845), 73–77

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 staid, sober, 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 playing ball, wrestling, running foot-races, fiddling, dancing, and drinking whisky; and this latter mode of spending the time was by far the most agreeable to the 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 seems 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 him 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 were 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, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.​
I have said that this mode of treatment is a part of the whole system of fraud and inhumanity of slavery. It is so. The mode here adopted to disgust the slave with freedom, by allowing him to see only the abuse of it, is carried out in other things. For instance, a slave loves molasses; he steals some. His master, in many cases, goes off to town, and buys a large quantity; he returns, takes his whip, and commands the slave to eat the molasses, until the poor fellow is made sick at the very mention of it. The same mode is sometimes adopted to make the slaves refrain from asking for more food than their regular allowance. A slave runs through his allowance, and applies for more. His master is enraged at him; but, not willing to send him off without food, gives him more than is necessary, and compels him to eat it within a given time. Then, if he complains that he cannot eat it, he is said to be satisfied neither full nor fasting, and is whipped for being hard to please!
I have an abundance of such illustrations of the same principle, drawn from my own observation, but think the cases I have cited sufficient. The practice is a very common one.”
 
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#2
Agreeing pretty much with Douglass's view on the holiday, Kenneth M. Stampp, in his book The Peculiar Institution - Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, addressed the Christmas holiday as well as other holidays and certain work days off for the slaves (pp. 169 - 170):

"Nearly every master observed a number of special holidays, the most common .being Good Friday, Independence Day, 'laying-by time,' and Christmas. These were occasions not only for the granting of passes but also for feasting. After .the crops were laid by, a Mississippian 'Called off the hands ... to take holiday for the balance of the week. . . . Gave the negroes a dinner; and they did eat, and were filled. They demolished a beef, two shoats and two lams. . . . Sent down for Courtney's colored band to play for my negroes to dance tonight, which pleases them greatly.'1 Similar banquets and celebrations occurred at corn shuckings and at weddings.

"Christmas was the festival that bondsmen looked forward to most, for they enjoyed a general relaxation of discipline along with the gifts and feasts and the holiday from labor. Even the severest masters gave their slaves Christmas Day to celebrate; most gave them one or two additional days; and some gave them a whole week of vacation between Christmas and New Year's Day. 'At Christmas a holyday of three or four days is given,' James H. Hammond wrote in his plantation manual. 'On that day . . . a barbecue is given, beef or mutton and pork, coffee and bread being bountifully provided.'2

"Some went to considerable expense and took great pains to make the Christmas holiday pleasant, 'I have endeavored ... to make my Negroes joyous and happy, and am glad to see them enjoying themselves with such a contented hearty good will,' exulted a small Mississippi slaveholder. Another Mississippian 'Spent the day waiting on the negroes, and making them as comfortable as possible.' A Tennesseean noted with satisfaction that his 'people' were 'as happy as Lords.' Though most masters made it a policy to keep liquor away from their bondsmen, save for medicinal purposes, they often made an exception of Christmas. At the end of the holiday one slaveholder observed that his chattels were 'all drunk or asleep.'3

"Now and then a Southerner deplored the widespread practice of permitting slaves to have so much freedom at Christmas, especially the practice of giving them passes to wander about. No man of common sense, wrote one nervous critic, believed that this 'idle, lounging, roving, drunken, and otherwise mischievous [Christmas] week fits the Negro in the least degree for the discharge of his duties.'4

"This was a narrow view of the matter.A former slave thought that the occasional festivities and holidays were an essential part of the master's system of control. They kept the minds of the bondsmen 'occupied with prospective pleasures within the limits of slavery. . . . These holidays are conductors or safety valves to carry off the explosive elements inseparable from the human mind, when reduced to the condition of slavery.'5

"In general, the master class agreed. An Alabamian urged others to adopt his policy of giving the slaves occasional dances, dinners, holidays, and other harmless indulgences. It contributed to their happiness and caused them to become attached to their master, he claimed. 'Some will say that this plan will not do to make money, but I know of no man who realizes more to the hand than I.'6"
 

gem

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#3
Here is a very interesting observation by Douglass.

"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 seems 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 him 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 were 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, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery."
 

JPK Huson 1863

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#4
Really interesting, thank you. If Frederick Douglas didn't know what was up, no one did. Must be awfully accurate with this- remember his childhood? Made to crawl to his food, served in a trough. No one can convince me the same folks who did that to children ( or anyone at all ) had the slightest interest in how happy anyone was one week a year.
 



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