Meanwhile, inside their own households, the Puritans tried hard to convert their slaves, who had been torn from their homelands but who rarely left their beliefs behind. Mather himself had an African-born servant living in close quarters with his family, but try as he might, Mather was never able to convert him.
Perhaps if Mather had embraced the joys of a heathen Christmas, he would have been more successful. For, as the Puritan influence waned, the holiday gained ground. Had Mather lived longer, he would have found that the most powerful tool in the transformation of the beliefs of the enslaved may have been Christmas itself.
Efforts increased to Christianize the non-Christian population upon whose labor the season’s leisure depended. During a period of enforced joviality—described without irony in 1860 as “that great time of freedom from restraint among our slaves”—the very holiday vices Mather bemoaned became mandatory.
“The slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord,” the former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass recalled, “but will adopt various plans to make him drunk.”
For those slaves who didn’t take to conversion, Christmas proved essential to the suppression of their own long-held beliefs, including Islam, Yoruba, and a variety of other African traditions. Before the Civil War, slave owners safeguarded their sense of control by imposing Christian traditions on slaves. Unsurprisingly, this did not always have the intended religious effects. During visits to plantations in the 1830s that led him to write The Religious Instruction of Negroes in the United States, the missionary Charles Colock Jones noticed that those who were aware of the Gospel story often came to their own conclusions about its significance. Many of the enslaved, Jones noted, “have been known to accommodate Christianity to Mohammedanism. God, say they, is Allah, and Jesus Christ is Mohammed—the religion is the same, but different countries have different names.” Still, the insinuation of Christmas was moving forward apace.
Evidence of a different sort of accommodation can be found in newspaper reports written well into the following century. An account of a gathering of former slaves in Atlanta in 1932 describes how these elderly men and women came together at Christmas, “the only big day in their lives,” not to sing hymns or carols but to share “the old songs of their childhood.” Though they sang about Jesus, the article continued, the “pagan” music accompanying the lyrics seemed to echo from a half-forgotten pre-Christian past. “These melodies are their only heritage,” the report noted. As with the Puritans, Christmas had triumphed, while the influence of other traditions receded into the background.
“The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery,” Douglass wrote. Christmas was used as a weapon against the bodies and the beliefs of those powerless to resist.