Up from Slavery: An Autobiography HTML version

Anxious Days And Sleepless Nights
The coming of Christmas, that first year of our residence in Alabama, gave us an
opportunity to get a farther insight into the real life of the people. The first thing that
reminded us that Christmas had arrived was the "foreday" visits of scores of children
rapping at our doors, asking for "Chris'mus gifts! Chris'mus gifts!" Between the hours of
two o'clock and five o'clock in the morning I presume that we must have had a half-
hundred such calls. This custom prevails throughout this portion of the South to-day.
During the days of slavery it was a custom quite generally observed throughout all the
Southern states to give the coloured people a week of holiday at Christmas, or to allow
the holiday to continue as long as the "yule log" lasted. The male members of the race,
and often the female members, were expected to get drunk. We found that for a whole
week the coloured people in and around Tuskegee dropped work the day before
Christmas, and that it was difficult for any one to perform any service from the time they
stopped work until after the New Year. Persons who at other times did not use strong
drink thought it quite the proper thing to indulge in it rather freely during the Christmas
week. There was a widespread hilarity, and a free use of guns, pistols, and gunpowder
generally. The sacredness of the season seemed to have been almost wholly lost sight of.
During this first Christmas vacation I went some distance from the town to visit the
people on one of the large plantations. In their poverty and ignorance it was pathetic to
see their attempts to get joy out of the season that in most parts of the country is so sacred
and so dear to the heart. In one cabin I notice that all that the five children had to remind
them of the coming of Christ was a single bunch of firecrackers, which they had divided
among them. In another cabin, where there were at least a half-dozen persons, they had
only ten cents' worth of ginger-cakes, which had been bought in the store the day before.
In another family they had only a few pieces of sugarcane. In still another cabin I found
nothing but a new jug of cheap, mean whiskey, which the husband and wife were making
free use of, notwithstanding the fact that the husband was one of the local ministers. In a
few instances I found that the people had gotten hold of some bright-coloured cards that
had been designed for advertising purposes, and were making the most of these. In other
homes some member of the family had bought a new pistol. In the majority of cases there
was nothing to be seen in the cabin to remind one of the coming of the Saviour, except
that the people had ceased work in the fields and were lounging about their homes. At
night, during Christmas week, they usually had what they called a "frolic," in some cabin
on the plantation. That meant a kind of rough dance, where there was likely to be a good
deal of whiskey used, and where there might be some shooting or cutting with razors.
While I was making this Christmas visit I met an old coloured man who was one of the
numerous local preachers, who tried to convince me, from the experience Adam had in
the Garden of Eden, that God had cursed all labour, and that, therefore, it was a sin for
any man to work. For that reason this man sought to do as little work as possible. He
seemed at that time to be supremely happy, because he was living, as he expressed it,
through one week that was free from sin.