Q&A: Professor's talk looks at Antebellum Christmases in the South

Historians in the News

In the pre-Civil War South, Christmas traditions were a lot different than what they are today.

The holiday brought out surprising kindness in slave owners, giving their slaves numerous gifts and lavish banquets, according to Purdue University history professor Robert E. May.

Still, often these acts of kindness had a dark side to them.

May will discuss this segment of American history during the holidays at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Tippecanoe County Public Library, 627 South St. His talk, "Christmas in the Confederacy," is free and open to the public.

Question: What was Christmas like in the South before the Civil War?

Answer: Churchgoing, shopping and gift-giving were extremely important to Southern whites before the Civil War, and the holiday became crucial in mitigating the possibility of slave revolts in the region. Many masters were remarkably generous to slaves at Christmas, throwing them sumptuous banquets (including astounding amounts of liquor) and giving them many days off from work and many presents -- some under a ritual with psychological nuances called "Christmas Gif." Slave weddings commonly took place over the holidays, for reasons that I will get into at my talk....

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