Note: Interminable Rambling will be taking a break for the next two weeks. We will see you again January 5th.
Did you know that “O Holy Night,” a Christmas carol we sing every year, has ties to the abolitionist movement? I didn’t realize this until recently when I heard the song sung. Typically, performers only sing the first or maybe the first two verses; however, this time I heard the third verse, a stanza that can be seen in an abolitionist light, especially during the years leading up to the Civil War.
From what I know of the effect of these holidays upon the slaves, I believe them to be among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection” (82).
The holiday season served as a deceitful time where the master allowed respite and relaxation, only to appear benevolent and generous. By letting the slaves get drunk, the masters worked “to disgust their slaves with freedom by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation,” making them feel as if they have an inability to care and fend for themselves, thus casting the slaveholder as a benevolent caregiver (83). Rather than giving in to the facade of freedom by drinking, playing games, wrestling, and dancing, Douglass suggests that slaves who remained industrious during the period stung his or master by essentially rejecting the favor the slaveholder bestowed.
Slaves, in the North and the South, did participate in various festivities, not just at Christmas. In the North, slaves took part in Pass celebrations during Easter and in “Election Day” activities where the community received a day off and voted for a “leader” who would serve as a liason between them and the white community. These celebrations, like the holidays, provided a release, and some semblance of autonomy. However, the freedom that came with the festivities did not last, and life went back to “normal” soon afterwards.
During this holiday season, listen to the songs you sing and think about their historical relevance. For “O Holy Night,” that historical connection exists within the 1850s and the abolitionist movement, arguing for the rights of enchained slaves. In the comments below, let me know about some songs that may have more meanings than we typically perceive. For more on the holidays and slavery, see Documenting the American South‘s post on “The Slave Experience and the Holidays.”
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave Written By Himself. New York: Signet, 1997. Print.