12/28/2014 11:11 pm ET Updated Feb 27, 2015

The Art of Gift Exchange: Christmas for Slaves' in the Deep South

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The study of slavery and customs in the South chronicle the life of slaves during Christmas. Scholars generally describe Christmas as the most important holiday in the plantation calendar --a time when the peculiar institution of slavery is romanticized displaying the yuletide cheer shown even to slaves. Albert J. Raboteau, author of Slave Religion presents it as the most festive holiday of all. (Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: "The Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (New York, 1978), 224.

During the Christmas season, masters and mistresses lavished feasts, presents, and days off from labor upon household servants and field hands alike. Other historians such as Orville Burton which I agree with have looked at Christmas as a means of social control to reinforce the norm of Christianity. Slaves extracted "earthly privileges" which was few and far between such as Christmas as something they shared with their masters.

The art of gift giving was also defined slave owners' displays of Christmas paternalism. During the holiday season, they conferred an assortment of presents to slaves such as blankets', shoes, frocks, pants and hats. Also included were tobacco, beads, toys, candy and other tokens of appreciation to those who were considered "house slaves." A minority of slave owners gave money in their Christmas selections for slaves.

Some slave owners, to increase productivity and continued division among slaves gave gift giving by an incentive system based on the labor over the causes of the previous year. For instance, a slave owner in Mississippi gave a slave $17 for its productivity.

Virtually all slave-owners expected that gift giving, whatever its form would conclude with overwhelming gratitude by the recipients. For Christmas to function as a safety valve for planter guilt and appease slave discontent, it was essential that slaves acknowledge their owners' paternalism.

Such reciprocity was given mostly by adulation to master but also with gifts to the master of gifts of eggs wrapped in handkerchiefs. Male slaves made walking sticks for the older white men and women. Slaves, of course, had few resources for gift-giving possibly some masters discouraged such gestures given the social dynamics implied in gift exchanges. Displays of economic equality would have thwarted the slave roles of childlike dependency. Kenneth S. Greenberg addresses this very point in Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, and Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Death, Humanitarianism, Slave Rebellions, the Pro-Slavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting and Gambling. Greenberg argues that masters consciously denied slaves the right to engage in behaviors such as dueling, naming themselves and giving Christmas gifts. Such activities contradicted the whole slave regime by implying that slaves had power and honor.

One of the highlights of Christmas for me is the art of gift-giving to families, friends and even to those I barely speak to during the year. I wonder historically how we as a culture reconcile the historical realities of gift giving by slave masters that use this as a means to keep slaves wedded to white religion and norms of behavior. Notwithstanding to this, I cannot make assumptions based on this completely because it is noted that master/slave/mistress sometimes had heartfelt relationships for one another even in the Deep South. Much of the insights of the slave culture have been derived from looking at it from the bottom up. Perhaps it is time for a paradigm shift in looking at slave historiography from the actions as found in letters from the master's perspectives in the important reality that shaped the slave world. The Apostle Paul concluded that at the end of the day "we wrestle not against flesh and blood but principalities in high places."

Christmas is a good time for us to do a glory-check. We need to ask ourselves where we are finding glory in our own lives. Is it in our achievements, in our prosperity, in our enjoyment of a pile of gifts on Christmas morning? Or is it in our care for the vulnerable children of our world, and in our service to the sick and the suffering and the poor all around us? Our glory is found not in gold or jewels or the gifts we found under the tree this morning, but in the opportunities we have to love our neighbors, and to show generosity to those in need.

But they also open our eyes to the riches of God's grace. One of the joys of Christmas is that it is a time of gift-giving, and there is really nothing wrong with offering presents on this particular holiday. After all, it was on Christmas day that God gave us the greatest present of all time -- the gift of his Son Jesus, the Savior of the world. The gospel of John tells us that "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life" (3:16). Because God loves us, he gives us his Son. It's a free gift, an undeserved gift. This was God's gift given to us which carries with it the unconditional love of God.

Grace is sometimes defined as the gift of God's own self. And that definition certainly fits God's generosity at Christmas, when he gives us the gift of his Son. This is a present that brings God right into the heart of human life. It's a gift that saves us, and connects us to our Lord for all eternity. It's a gift of God's own self in the person of Emmanuel-God with us. This is the greatest exchange that is known to humanity; let us embrace this gift that can never be duplicated by man that's better than anything we can find under the tree.