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Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory

Evening Lecture/Seminar

Tuesday, December 6, 2022 - 7:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. ET
Code: 1CV005
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Materials for this program
  1. Handout

Christmas eve on a southern plantation by Frank Leslie, 1857 (Library of Congress)

How did enslaved African Americans in the Old South really experience Christmas? Did Christmastime provide slaves with a lengthy and jubilant respite from labor and the whip, as is generally assumed, or is the story far more complex and troubling?

Drawing from his book Yuletide in Dixie, historian Robert E. May challenges disturbing and deeply embedded cultural myths and chides conventional wisdom for simplifying Black perspectives, uncritically accepting southern white literary tropes about the holiday, and overlooking evidence not only that countless southern whites passed Christmases fearful that their slaves would revolt but also that slavery’s most punitive features persisted at holiday time.

May discusses how this dark reality alters our understanding of that history as well as sheds new light on the breakdown of slavery in the Civil War and how false assumptions about slave Christmases afterward became harnessed to myths undergirding white supremacy in the United States.

May is an author and professor emeritus of history at Purdue University.

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