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December 20, 2013
Historical Notes St Vincent and the Grenadines

The Way it Was – Christmas during Slavery

Orlando Patterson in his book The Sociology of Slavery gives an account of the celebration of Christmas. Although it is about Jamaica, it applied equally to the rest of the Caribbean as planters such as Sir William Young and Mrs Carmichael described it.{{more}}

“The Christmas celebrations began early on Christmas morning when a chorus of Negroes came up to the great house and serenaded the masters with the singing of songs like “Good morning to your night cap and health to master and mistress.” After this, they all went to their grounds to get provisions for the next two or three days.

On the first day it was customary only for the head Negroes and the more prominent female slaves to pay a ceremonial visit to the whites, dressed in their very best clothes and exhibiting their most valuable trinkets ‘…coral and coconelian necklaces, bracelets etc…’

Sometimes, however, the possession of the great house began on Christmas evening after the bulk of the slaves had returned from their provision grounds and had dressed themselves. They then assembled on the lawn before the Great House with gombays, bonjaws, and an ebo drum made of hollow tree, with a piece of sheep’s skin stretched over it. Some of the women carried small calabashes with pebbles in them, stuck on short sticks which they rattled in time to the songs, or rather, howls of the musicians. They divided themselves into parties to dance, some before the gombays, in a ring, to perform a bolero or a sort of love dance, as it is called where the gentleman occasionally wiped the perspiration off the shining faces of their

black beauties, who, in turn performed the same service to the ministrel. Others performed a sort of pyrrhic before the ebo drummer, beginning gently and quickening their motions until they seemed agitated by the furries. They were all dressed in their best, some of the men in long tailed coats, one of the gombayers in old regimentals; the women in muslins and cambrics, with coloured handkerchiefs tastefully disposed round their heads and earrings, necklaces and bracelets of all sorts in profusion. The entertainment was kept up until 9 or 10’ o’ clock in the evening and during that time they were regaled with punch and santa in abundance; they came occasionally and asked for port and wine. Indeed, a perfect equality seemed to reign among all parties; many came and shook hands with their master and mistress, nor did the young ladies refuse this salutation any more than the gentlemen; the merriment became rather boisterous as the punch operate and the slaves sang satirical phillipics against their maser, communicating a little free advice now and then; but they never lost sight of decorum and at last retired, apparently quite satisfied with their saturnalia, to dance the rest of the night at their own habitations.”

The celebrations on Boxing Day began a little after breakfast with new costumes being worn, and the main attraction being the John Canoe Dance. The usual dancing and merrymaking were indulged in. Sometimes the celebrations continued the day after Boxing Day if that day was free.

For New Year’s Day most festive celebrations centred on the towns as a long procession of slaves dressed mainly in white, their favourite colours were seen walking two abreast from the plantation to the nearest main town.