Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas among the slaves...do traditions survive?

How did slaves spend the holidays? Are there any traditions which began back then still around today? When I moved South and attended some of the services held in the same places where my ancestors worshiped, I learned about homecomings, midnight watch services, and Christmas Eve celebrations.

Witnessing these special occasions has helped me envision my ancestors and feel of the spirit they had on these holidays. In my mind's eye, I have come to understand the importance they placed on being able to steal away to meet together to worship and fellowship.

This version of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy,"  by Charles Haugarbrooks is beautiful. It is very similar to African-American spirituals.


I have no reason to be anything but grateful for my ancestors and for the gift of the Savior who eased their burdens and brought them solace and peace. As you go about your festivities this season, look past the tinsel and the glitter, and remember the same Christ in whom our slave ancestors looked forward to for an escape from daily cares that pressed in upon them is yet there and understands our plight as well.

There exists still an essence of the faith, courage, and hope that they had as I observe and pay close attention to the lyrics and melodies and messages.  You have to actually experience it to capture what I am trying to express. It is beautiful to be able to learn about the hymns and scriptures that helped them to withstand their hardships. Below are a couple of resources to help you understand ways slaves celebrated the holidays. I will be sharing others until Jan 1, 2011.




Christmas Among the Slaves

"Christmas Eve was celebrated by the colored people at General Drayton's plantation. About half past eleven o'clock a bell was rung, and precisely at twelve a pine fire was kindled in front of the cabin where the meeting was to be held. They called the festival a serenade to Jesus. One of the leaders, of which there were three, was dressed in a red coat with brass buttons, wearing white gloves. The females wore turbans made of cotton handkerchiefs. All ages were represented, from the child of one year to the old man of ninety.
"The first exercises consisted in singing hymns and spiritual songs, among which were those beginning, ' Salvation! O, the joyful sound,  'The voice of free grace;' 'Come, humble sinner, in whose breast; 'O, poor sinner, can't stand de fire, can't stand de fire in dat great day,' and a Christmas song  containing a medley of everything the fruitful mind of the leader could suggest, with the refrain,' We'll wait till Jesus comes.' One of the leaders lined the hymns, and though none of them could read, it was remarkable with what correctness they gave the words. Their Scripture quotations were also correct and appropriate, not only having the exact words, but naming the chapter and verse where they could be found.

"After singing for some time, a prayer-meeting was held. The prayers were fervent and powerful, and when an allusion would be made to the soldiers who had come from their distant homes, in the North country, to 'help and save de poor slave, and, like Jesus, bring dem good tidings of great joy,' a shout went up that sent its notes on the still night air to the distant pickets in the surrounding pines.  When asked, as they could not read, how they could quote the Scriptures, they replied: 'We have ears, massa, and when de preacher give out his texts, den we remembers and says dem over and over till we never forgets dem ; That's de way, massa, we poor people learns do Word of God.'
"The next exercise consisted of speaking and singing, at intervals. While one was speaking, another would take a blazing pine torch from the fire, and hold it up, so that all might see the speaker. At two o'clock, a recess was had, and til were invited to partake of coffee, which luxury they can now purchase without any difficulty, as they have plenty of money, obtained of the soldiers for vegetables and poultry.
"After this came what they called the shouting exercise. It was introduced by the beating of time by three or four, with the feet. Soon the whole company formed into a circle, and commenced jumping and singing to the time and tune of
'Say, brothers, will you meet me,
Say, brothers, will you meet me,
Say, brothers, will you meet me,
On Canaan's happy shore t'
This was continued until the most fertile imagination was exhausted, embracing an invitation to sisters, soldiers, preachers, &c, to meat them on Canaan's happy shore.
"Never did these poor slaves celebrate a Christmas Eve under such circumstances before. Whatever may be their future, they are now, to all intents, purposes, and constructions whatever, free; That they may 'choose it rather' is beyond question more certain.

___________________________________________________
Moore, Frank. "Full Text of "The Civil War in Song and Story, 1860-1865"" Internet Archive: Digital Library of Free Books, Movies, Music & Wayback Machine. Web. 24 Dec. 2010. <http://www.archive.org/stream/civilwarinsonga01moorgoog/civilwarinsonga01moorgoog_djvu.txt>.


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