November 22, 2006
Christmas programs at CW's Great Hopes Plantation depict what holidays were like for the enslaved
Thousands of guests visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Historic Area during the Christmas season hoping to learn more of what the holidays were like in the 18th century. Guests will have the opportunity to visit special programs at Great Hopes Plantation that depict the holiday season for enslaved African Americans.
Last year’s successful program, “Kate’s Christmas Box,” will be featured again from 10:30 a.m. December 7, 14, 21 and 28. Interpreters Emily James and Ayinde Martin present a view of 18th-century slaves who might have lived at Great Hopes Plantation. James portrays a slave named Kate while Martin acts as the drummer and narrator. The program is designed to engage the audience. “Guests will leave with the understanding of the true meaning of Christmas for the enslaved,” James says.
Guests can participate in the circle dance, an integral part of slaves’ observance of the holidays. Holiday gatherings were times when enslaved people re-established family ties. “You found out who had a baby, who had passed on, who was sick,” James said.
“Christmas was a particularly difficult time of year for slaves,” says Martin. Christmas was the time when slave families were most likely to be split up. “Anyone can take a lash, but if you’re free, no one can take away your family,” Martin said, describing the harsh reality for slaves.
The title of the program, “Kate’s Christmas Box,” refers to the tradition of giving boxes to servants and slaves at Christmas. This box was not necessarily a gift; Martin says it was more appropriately considered to be a supplement to one’s rations. Many slaves’ boxes, including Kate’s, contained a cut of meat, such as a pig’s tail. This tradition, which was brought over by the British, would lead to the “Boxing Day” holiday celebrated in Britain and Canada on December 26.
“Not all masters gave gifts to their slaves,” James said, “but there is evidence in Thomas Jefferson’s own writings that the founding father was a master who did provide gifts for his slaves.”
This year, Great Hopes will feature another holiday program, “Storytelling: The Night the Animals Spoke,” on December 5, 12, 19 and 26 from 10:30 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. The program, now in its third year, focuses on the differences between the cultures of slaves and their masters. Guests are first brought to the kitchen where they listen to the wife of the property owner tell the Christmas story, “The Night the Animals Spoke.” “She tells the story from a white Virginia culture point of view,” says Art Johnson, one of the program’s storytellers.
The group then visits the slave quarters, where a slave tells the same story from his point of view. “Each story has a different moral,” Johnson says. “The program has been very successful and well received.”
“The holiday programs at Great Hopes Plantation are a complement to the programs in the Historic Area,” says Martin. In the latter, programs largely reflect the gentry and urban classes.
Great Hopes represents a middling plantation, which typically covered 200 to 800 acres and had a workforce of about seven enslaved people. Interpreters at Great Hopes interpret slave culture, agricultural and carpentry work performed on a middling plantation. Martin feels that more guests identify with the interpreters at Great Hopes and in turn, the interpreters “take time to have conversations with the guests.”
A Colonial Williamsburg admission ticket or Good Neighbor Pass is required to attend these programs.