For many people enslaved in the United States, Christmas was the only holiday they ever knew.
There are no known first-hand accounts of Christmas holidays written by a member of Monticello’s enslaved community or a descendant. Yet other primary sources shed light on a season that was at once a complicated mix of labor, resistance, celebration, and family reunion. Despite the hardships of their bondage, enslaved persons at Monticello forged traditions, found opportunities—sometimes at great personal risk—and created religious observances all their own.
Pass granting permission for Benjamin McDaniel to travel in Virginia between New Market and James and Dolley Madison's estate Montpelier.
Heavy restrictions were placed on enslaved people, both physically and geographically. Leaving the plantation required official permission and traveling without a pass or tag risked serious punishment. The winter holidays were, however, a time when traveling passes were more commonly granted by Thomas Jefferson and other plantation masters. This afforded the rare opportunity for enslaved people to visit loved ones separated by distance and bondage.
Shortly after the death of his infant child from whooping cough, David Hern, Jr. petitioned a Monticello overseer for permission to visit his wife Frances in Washington, DC. Jefferson granted this petition, and the couple were permitted to mourn together for five days over Christmas in 1808.
Sometimes holiday season reunions happened in the course of regular labor. Two days before Christmas 1813, Bedford Davy, Bartlet, Nace, and Eve were sent to drive hogs the 93 miles between Monticello and Jefferson’s Bedford County plantation, Poplar Forest. Upon arrival, the group likely celebrated Christmas with relatives and friends; most of them had lived at Poplar Forest and labored in that plantation’s nailery as children.
For enslaved domestic servants however, the winter holidays represented a time of increased labor. Enslaved cooks, chambermaids, butlers, and launderers worked hard to meet the higher demands of travelling master families and the arrival of holiday visitors.
Deed of Manumission to Robert Hemings, signed by Thomas Jefferson and dated December 24, 1794. Courtesy University of Virginia Library.
Financial accounts were settled at the end of the year during this period. For plantation owners in debt, this sometimes meant selling enslaved persons to pay their bills. Occasionally, enslaved people were manumitted. Robert Hemings received his manumission from Jefferson on Christmas Eve, 1794. Hemings wanted to live with his wife Dolly; to do so, he convinced Jefferson to sign his manumission over to a white man in Richmond. Hemings agreed to work until his freedom was “paid off,” a freedom he eventually attained.
Bringing their own traditions and skills to Christmas celebrations, enslaved African Americans helped create a new American culture of music, religious traditions, and food.
Sheet music, in Jefferson's hand with Money Musk, which was known to have been played by Jefferson's sons with Sally Hemings
Beverly, Madison, and Eston Hemings, Jefferson’s enslaved sons, all played the violin – an instrument often present during holiday celebrations. Priscilla Hemings was known for her religious piety and for hosting worship services in her home; the Christian message of survival and escape from slavery resonated strongly with enslaved African Americans. In their own homes, enslaved families supplemented their usual rations with wild game and foraged delicacies.
For some, the holiday season offered a greater opportunity for a common form of resistance: running away. Longer nights during the winter months as well as increased travel created an opportunity to escape bondage. Indeed, documents from plantations all over the South demonstrate that the holidays were a time when many enslaved people made a bid for freedom.
Their struggle and the survival of their histories represents the triumph of the human spirit and the strength of family ties passed on to their descendants – and to all Americans.