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Reflect on Solomon Northup's "A Slave's Christmas"

Solomon Northup, engraving by Nathaniel Orr from illustration by Frederick M. Coffin, 1855.

Solomon Northup was a free Black man and a citizen of New York State where he lived in Saratoga Springs with his wife and three children. In 1841, Northup was kidnapped by slave traders, who drugged him and stole his freedom papers, while on a trip to Washington DC. Northup was then transported in chains to Louisiana where he was sold into slavery. In Louisiana, Northup worked on sugar and cotton plantations until he was able to smuggle a letter to his wife and friends in New York. Using a New York State law designed to protect free Black citizens from being sold into slavery, they secured his freedom through the courts. Northup was finally released from bondage after twelve years as a slave. When he returned to New York abolitionists helped him publish his memoir, TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE. NARRATIVE OF
SOLOMON NORTHUP, A CITIZEN OF NEW-YORK, KIDNAPPED IN WASHINGTON CITY IN 1841 AND RESCUED IN 1853, FROM A COTTON PLANTATION NEAR THE RED RIVER IN LOUISIANA. Solomon Northup’s account is especially important as a historical document because he describes slavery from the perspective of a free man and a skilled worker. In this passage Northup explains how his musicianship helped him survive enslavement. It is also a unique account because Northup was enslaved on and escaped from plantations in the “deep” South. In these passages posted on the website Documenting the American South, Solomon Northup describes a slave’s Christmas:

“The only respite from constant labor the slave has through the whole year, is during the Christmas holidays. Epps allowed us three — others allow four, five and six days, according to the measure of their generosity. It is the only time to which they look forward with any interest or pleasure. They are glad when night comes, not only because it brings them a few hours repose, but because it brings them one day nearer Christmas . . . They are the only days when they are allowed a little restricted liberty, and heartily indeed do they enjoy it.”

“It is the custom for one planter to give a ‘Christmas supper,’ inviting the slaves from neighboring plantations to join his own on the occasion; for instance, one year it is given by Epps, the next by Marshall, the next by Hawkins, and so on. Usually from three to five hundred are assembled, coming together on foot, in carts, on horseback, on mules, riding double and triple . . .”

“[T]hey array themselves in their best attire. The cotton coat has been washed clean, the stump of a tallow candle has been applied to the shoes, and if so fortunate as to possess a rimless or a crownless hat, it is placed jauntily on the head. They are welcomed with equal cordiality, however, if they come bare-headed and bare-footed to the feast. As a general thing, the women wear handkerchiefs tied about their heads, but if chance has thrown in their way a fiery red ribbon, or a cast-off bonnet of their mistress' grandmother, it is sure to be worn on such occasions. Red — the deep blood red — is decidedly the favorite color among the enslaved damsels of my acquaintance.”

“The table is spread in the open air, and loaded with varieties of meat and piles of vegetables. Bacon and corn meal at such times are dispensed with. Sometimes the cooking is performed in the kitchen on the plantation, at others in the shade of wide branching trees. In the latter case, a ditch is dug in the ground, and wood laid in and burned until it is filled with glowing coals, over which chickens, ducks, turkeys, pigs, and not unfrequently the entire body of a wild ox, are roasted. They are furnished also with flour, of which biscuits are made, and often with peach and other preserves, with tarts, and every manner and description of pies, except the mince, that being an article of pastry as yet unknown among them. Only the slave who has lived all the years on his scanty allowance of meal and bacon, can appreciate such suppers. White people in great numbers assemble to witness the gastronomical enjoyments.”

“They seat themselves at the rustic table — the males on one side, the females on the other. The two between whom there may have been an exchange of tenderness, invariably manage to sit opposite; for the omnipresent Cupid disdains not to hurl his arrows into the simple hearts of slaves . . . All round the bountiful board a multitude of eyes roll in ecstasy. Giggling and laughter and the clattering of cutlery and crockery succeed.”

“When the viands have disappeared, and the hungry maws of the children of toil are satisfied, then, next in the order of amusement, is the Christmas dance. My business on these gala days always was to play on the violin. The African race is a music-loving one, proverbially; and many there were among my fellow — bondsmen whose organs of tune were strikingly developed, and who could thumb the banjo with dexterity; but at the expense of appearing egotistical, I must nevertheless, declare, that I was considered the Ole Bull of Bayou Boeuf. My master often received letters, sometimes from a distance of ten miles, requesting him to send me to play at a ball or festival of the whites. He received his compensation, and usually I also returned with many picayunes jingling in my pockets — the extra contributions of those to whose delight I had administered.”

“Alas! had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage . . . It heralded my name round the country—made me friends, who, otherwise would not have noticed me — gave me an honored seat at the yearly feasts, and secured the loudest and heartiest welcome of them all at the Christmas dance. The Christmas dance! Oh, ye pleasure-seeking sons and daughters of idleness, who move with measured step, listless and snail-like, through the slow-winding cotillon, if ye wish to look upon the celerity, if not the ‘poetry of motion’ — upon genuine happiness, rampant and unrestrained — go down to Louisiana, and see the slaves dancing in the starlight of a Christmas night.”

“During the remaining holidays succeeding Christmas, they are provided with passes, and permitted to go where they please within a limited distance, or they may remain and labor on the plantation, in which case they are paid for it. It is very rarely, however, that the latter alternative is accepted. They may be seen at these times hurrying in all directions, as happy looking mortals as can be found on the face of the earth. They are different beings from what they are in the field; the temporary relaxation, the brief deliverance from fear, and from the lash, producing an entire metamorphosis in their appearance and demeanor. In visiting, riding, renewing old friendships, or, perchance, reviving some old attachment, or pursuing whatever pleasure may suggest itself; the time is occupied. Such is ‘southern life as it is three days in the year, as I found it— the other three hundred and sixty-two being days of weariness, and fear, and suffering, and unremitting labor.”