Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmases past

The eve of the feast of Jesus' birth was not always what it is today.

In the years 2010 to 2015, the New York Times marked the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Civil War with a series of "Opinionator" posts about that conflicted time. I especially enjoyed historian Adam Goodheart's snapshot of how the Christmas holiday figured in the U.S. cultures of 1860.

If you were a slave or an abolitionist, you might have approached the season with dread. Slave masters

... encouraged their slaves to eat, drink, and be merry. Field hands were commonly given the entire week as a holiday – their only one of the year. ... On the morning of Dec. 25, right after opening presents and emptying stockings, masters would bring their families down to the slave cabins to watch blacks perform dances and songs that had been handed down from Africa.

Meanwhile, despite the break from forced labor, the season was a time of anxiety for people held in bondage.

... In the antebellum period, the end of the calendar year was – as it is now – a busy period for financial transactions. Assets were liquidated, debts settled, taxes paid, balance sheets scrutinized. Any of these might lead a slaveholder to divest himself of some human property. Based on the evidence in contemporary newspapers, New Year’s Day slave auctions ... were common. The estimated five to 10 percent of American slaves who were rented from one master to another (in some regions the figure was more than 60 percent) had their own reasons to be terrified. Jan. 1 was when old rental contracts expired and slaves’ services were auctioned off for the year ahead, sending them to different, often far-flung, plantations.

Like just about everything else in a nation poised to go to sectional war, Christmas was claimed and appropriated by the contending parties.

In the South, the Augusta Chronicle accused the Yankee Puritans of being joyless Christmas-haters: “Our broad Union is divided between the descendant of the Norman Cavalier reverencing Christmas, and the descendant of the Saxon Puritan repudiating it … Let us hear no more of a “Cotton Confederation” but let us have instead (what may sound like a jest, but which has something of seriousness in it) a Confederation of the Christmas States.”

Meanwhile, several hundred miles closer to the North Pole, the same day’s Philadelphia Inquirer called Christmas a “good old Yankee custom” ...

Yet Christmas had not yet been entirely woven into the national calendar of major holidays.

Culturally, Christmas in 1860 was also at a strange transition point. In many parts of America, it was still celebrated as a riotous old pagan Saturnalia: working-class revelers known as “callithumpians” paraded through the streets in drag or blackface (sometimes both), firing off guns and starting street brawls, defying annual attempts by the city fathers to ban Christmas, as it were.

... Many, if not most, Protestant churches did not even have Christmas services, though some staged holiday parties, pageants, and “entertainments.” The New-York Tribune remarked in 1860 that only gradually was the festival starting to become as widely observed as more important national celebrations like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day.

Many of the pieces which made up the Times series have been published as a book: New York Times: Disunion: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln's Election to the Emancipation Proclamation. This was a volume that I read by ear and appreciated very much. There was an effort to match the readers with the gender and even the ethnicities of the various historians. All the chapters are naturally quite short. This is an easy way to absorb some Civil War history, 150 years out from that time's passions. And so many of that time's dilemmas remain: the moral challenge embedded in the nation by the our long acceptance of and profit from slavery continues today.

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