Celebrating While Remembering

The author decked out for Christmas.

This month, I planned to share information about where to see Santa Claus, interesting stats about the National Tree, details about the 18th Annual Christmas Holiday Market and my favorite gingerbread recipe. However, as I pondered my column, I discovered several of my personal Christmas traditions stemmed from a very dark part of America’s history—slavery.

Growing up I have loads of great Christmas memories. Of course, we celebrated at the holiday at church. We marked the Yule with gift giving and seasonal decorations. I volunteered to aid the less fortunate. Yet, now I reflect our community’s longer history, the season has deeper meaning.

Take for example our tradition of holiday gift giving. According to author Farrell Evans who wrote “What was Christmas Like for Enslaved People,” the Christmas season was a time for enslavers to “express their paternalism and dominance over the people they owned, who almost universally lacked the economic power or means to purchase gifts.” They “often gave their enslaved workers things they withheld throughout the year, like shoes, clothing and money.”

Growing up, I remember holding hands at Christmas dinners to pray with dozens of friends, family, and neighbors. The table would be beautifully decorated with fresh poinsettias and a large ham as the centerpiece. The ham would be perfectly adorned with pineapple rings with cherries in the center of each ring.

In the South, hogs were butchered after the first frost. Typically, between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The cold temperatures allowed the meat to be processed without spoiling in the heat. According to author Grady Atwater, a site administrator of the John Brown Museum and State Historic Site and author of “BBQ Roots Are Connected to Slavery,” on Southern plantations, the “Pit Master” was usually an old elderly slave who was an expert cook. He would cook the entire pig in a pit in the ground, tending to the fire all day for the slow roasting. The enslaved people received the ribs and various other cuts of the meat, deemed undesirable. It was not until I studied African American history that I discovered the link between this tradition and America’s darker history.

Knowing what I do about the history of Black people at Christmas makes me uncomfortable. However, the holiday also embraces faith, love for humanity and family joy. This season lets us combine our celebration of Christmas, spending time with family, eating delicious food, volunteering and drinking eggnog till our teeth hurt, with an appreciation of how our enslaved forefathers and mothers found beauty in darkness.

Some suggested articles for additional reading:

Leniqua’dominique Jenkins holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Houston and has worked on Capitol Hill and in Africa, India and Spain. She is a preschool teacher at a language immersion school in Ward 7.