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Wednesday, 22 December 2010
Christmas and slavery at Monticello

Although Thomas Jefferson’s Bible presents a non-traditional view on the birth of Jesus, Christmas celebrations were still held at Monticello and Poplar Forest acknowledging the Christian holiday. In 1762, Jefferson described Christmas as “The day of greatest mirth and jollity” and both friends and family wrote about the decorating of evergreen trees and the hanging of stockings. Christmas was also a time of change for Monticello’s slave population.

According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation: “For African-Americans at Monticello, the holiday season represented a time between - a few days when the winter work halted and mirth became the order of the day. The Christmas season came to represent hours when families reunited through visits and when normal routines were set aside. In 1808, Davy Hern traveled all the way to Washington where his wife Fanny worked at the President’s House to be with her for the holidays. Two days before the Christmas of 1813, Bedford Davy, Bartlet, Nace, and Eve set out for Poplar Forest to visit relatives and friends. Enslaved people frequently recalled that Christmas was the only holiday they knew. Many cherished memories of gathering apples and nuts, burning Yule logs, and receiving special tokens of food and clothing.”

The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia provides the following list of 'Christmas in the Enslaved Community' primary source references:

Although Christmas did not represent physical freedom for Monticello’s slave population, it could provide an opportunity for spiritual freedom, as well as the hope for better things to come. According to his records, Jefferson granted a four-day holiday at Christmas in which slaves could visit with friends and family in the community. Christmas was also one of the two times during the year that Jefferson would provide cloth to his slaves for clothes.

Like most masters, Jefferson increased his slave’s food rations during this time and on occasion, provided whiskey. During the brief sabbatical Monticello’s slaves had the freedom to hold their own services and celebrations, which included the same merriment as their white counterparts. This included singing and dancing. There are no records that indicate that Thomas Jefferson attended any of these events, but Isaac Jefferson once recalled that his brother would “come out among the black people, play the fiddle and dance half the night.”

Christmas on Mulberry Row is one of the most striking examples of the complex and contradictory nature of the master-slave relationship at Monticello. Despite its apparent hypocrisy, the holiday season represented a time when enslaved African-Americans could exercise a little levity and celebrate the birth of our Lord and savior.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all of my readers a very Merry Christmas. God bless.

Posted by ny5/pinstripepress at 10:30 AM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 22 December 2010 10:53 AM EST
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