Christmas on the Plantation
The most beneficial path to understanding the past is through the eyes and words of those who experienced it, rather than opinionated and judgmental tracts that pass for history today. For more on the interesting “John Kunner” related below, see www.cfhi.net Historical Essays, “John Kunering.”
Bernhard Thuersam, Director
Cape Fear Historical Institute
Christmas on the Plantation:
“No sooner was the harvest over, than preparations for Christmas began. Whole calves were barbequed, pigs roasted, while wild game and venison were hunted. For days ahead there was much cooking of plum pudding, fruit cakes, Sally White cakes, pies and all sorts of good things, (they make your mouth water to think of them). The big Yule log was brought in from the swamp the day before Christmas, where it had been soaking for weeks, the alert darkies knowing that as long as it burned in the “great house” they would stop working.
The mansion was elaborately dressed with evergreens, while branches of dried cedar dried hydrangea blooms were powdered with flour, making feathery white blossoms, as if in summer time. The holly tree was ornamented with long strings of popped corn, strung by the white and colored children.
Early Christmas morning the “Great House” was awakened by the singing of the darkies and voices calling out – “Ch’mas gif’, master, “Ch’mas gif”, mistress.” On the great tree were gifts for everyone on the plantation. In the low country of the South the Negroes dressed themselves as clowns, grotesque costumes (being known as “John Kunners”) and marched around ringing bells, as the danced, singing – “Ch’mas comes but once a year, hurrah Johnnie Kunner – give poor
Words fail to express the Christmas dinner of the old plantation. In front of “Marster” was a roast pig (red apple in his mouth) or the largest gobbler. Innumerable were the desserts or sweet – syllabub, custard, trifle, wine jelly, cocoanut and lemon puddings, mince pies, every kind of cake, and Snow Balls especially for the children.
With the dinner, wines were served, made from the plantation scuppernong, James or Catawba grapes, or from the luscious blackberry. In the quarters was served a wonderful repast to the entire colored population, and their gayeties were shown in dancing the “double shuffle,” the “break down,” the “chicken in the bread tray,” and the “pigeon wing,” followed by the “cake walk.” Up in the Mansion the family and guests probably engaged in the Virginia Reel or other forms of dancing.
Until New Years’ Day, the festivities would continue, a party at every plantation within riding distance, each house overflowing with merriment. A plantation Christmas would not be complete without a fox hunt, for “to ride with the hounds” was one of the accomplishments necessary to the planter and his sons. Space forbids further description of the happiness of life on an antebellum plantation in the South, but many of our Southern writers have given indelible pictures of the bond between master and slave, which was unique, will go down as an example of understanding affection. Without trying to condone the rare case of unkindness from planters toward their slaves, on the whole they were well treated and the hearts of the two races were closely knit in the old plantation system.
There was a personal interest in the heart of the planter and his family for these dusky folks who belonged to them. And they had a pride in their slaves that was reciprocated by them, who felt that their “White Folks” were better than any others. In writing of the race problem (after the Sixties) Henry W. Grady of Georgia said: “As I recall my old plantation home, the spirit of my old Black Mammy from her home above the skies, looks down to bless me, and through the tumult of the night the sweet music of her crooning, as she held me in her arms and lead me smiling to sleep.” One writer says: “The old plantation life is gone, but in that era of the Old South were found the very finest and highest types of loyalty and of patriotism that America will ever know.”
(Plantation Life in the Old South (excerpt), Lucy London Anderson, The Southern Magazine, May 1934, page 10)