Interpreting Christmas and Slavery

Let me apologize for the silence. However, I’m back to what I affectionately call “my poor, neglected blog” for a seasonal post.

This week an article appeared about a Christmas program at Gunston Hall, the plantation owned by George Mason (an often forgotten Founding Father) located in Fairfax County, Virginia. The program they had was titled “Plantation Christmas” which is a program about Christmas in the late 1700s. The author notes that various folks on Twitter were critical of the event through the site’s marketing and through a photograph that appeared on Twitter from David DuVal, director of marketing and public relations.

The site’s executive director responded to Mother Jones and you can read the article for yourself. What I’m less interested in is talking specifically about Gunston Hall and talking broadly about interpretive output at Christmas events at historic sites.

I am known around some in the museum community as the guy who hates “cider and cookies programs.” They exist at 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th century sites from Maine to Florida and from the Outer Banks of North Carolina to California. I actually like cider and I like cookies. However, what is the purpose of these programs? What window do they offer people into the specifics of the historic site or the historic context of the people who lived/worked at this place?

I took this subject on in my work (which y’all know I attempt to steer clear of discussing on my personal blog but I think in this case it is valuable).  We had a program at the Grant’s Headquarters at City Point unit of Petersburg National Battlefield years ago that featured cider and cookies, Christmas carols, dancing on the lawn, Civil War Santa, and kids’ crafts (such as construction paper chains and stringing popcorn and cranberries). In December 2001 (my first year working this program), I decided to insert a lecture about the lives of enslaved people during the Christmas season somewhat broadly but also bringing out information about the folks who lived and worked on the Eppes family’s plantation. I gave the program twice to a group of about 30 people each time.

The next year I suggested canceling the Christmas program to give us time to dig deeper into Richard Eppes’ diary to investigate the specifics of Christmas in the 1850s and 1860s on this plantation. We did not have a program again until 2007. I organized a group of living historians to assist me in representing specific people who were at the Eppes’ plantation (white and black) at Christmas 1858. A loose script was developed and I e-mailed the details of individual enslaved persons, the Eppes family, and their visitors. There were three stations (one in the big house parlor, one in the kitchen/laundry, and one outside on the lawn). This allowed people to hear about the lives of these people and their perspectives during this specific time of year (when a lot of us reflect back on our lives’ broadly, the past year, family, religion, and discuss preparations and gifts).

Gone now was Civil War Santa (it’s the 1850s after all), a Christmas tree (the historic record noted the first Christmas tree in the house in 1866), no more stringing popcorn and cranberries, no dancing (no evidence the Eppes’ did this outside or inside the house), and instead the interpretation happened of this specific site in the context of the 1850s and based in primary source evidence.

Christmas18582007

Christmas 1858 (in 2007) with living historians portraying Elizabeth Eppes, Susan Slaughter, and myself as George Bolling.

The program ran the next year and then in 2009 we started following the 150th anniversary of events (2009 was Christmas 1859, 2010 was Christmas 1860, 2011 was Christmas 1861). Each one wrapped in the evidence from Eppes’ diary and other contextual materials where the diary was lacking. There has not been an event 2012-2015 because the Eppes’ plantation complex rapidly disintegrated as a result of the Eppes family’s refugee status during the war and the enslaved people’s desires to be free and their own action of escaping in the spring and summer of 1862 and Union occupation from May 1864 through the end of the war.
A challenging component to any of these programs is shifting the focus back onto the people who lived these experiences: good, bad, and the ugly. For example, Christmas 1858 was a happy period for the person I was portraying, George Bolling who got married having successfully convinced Richard Eppes to allow him to marry someone who wasn’t on the plantation (which Eppes usually did not allow). However, that in and of itself opened the door for the interpreter to discuss with the visitors on these tours the degradation of adults who were enslaved. Black adults asking one man who has decreed in his mind that he should get to say on who others can marry.  George and his wife undoubtedly had concerns within that happiness about the stability of family when a slaveholder might breakup the union. Yet the preparations for the wedding spoke to the power of love to endure great strains.
Plantation sites have a lot of unresolved stories because the people who experienced slavery died long ago with many of those same people not feeling at peace. Our job in being able to connect our sites with the public should strive to not continue perpetuating slights to those whose stories have often been hidden in the shadows.

I agree with the comment of the Twitter user @slwill who asks if the story of the enslaved and the slaveholder are combined. I cannot speak to the program at Gunston Hall (though the site director says that they are committed to finding out more about Mason, the idea of slavery, and the specifics about the enslaved people at Gunston Hall); but, this should be a question always asked by interpreters at sites with connections to slavery. How can we (who work in these sites) help open up conversations with our visitors about the multiple perspectives that slaveholders, overseers, visitors, and the enslaved viewed the “big house,” the associated outbuildings, and the stuff within those buildings? We have to start with being honest about who built and maintained these structures, who cleaned silver and laid it out on dining tables, and the feelings that the enslaved person may have gotten from a pretty piece of art versus that of the slaveholder.
Tours guides and printed literature must carefully have the tone that shows they are serious about being inclusive of the variety of experiences people had on the plantations, in city houses, and at industrial sites. The tours must be grounded in the hard, but rewarding work, of primary source research. The research should be multi-disciplinary combining archival work, historical architectural and historical landscape design, archaeology, and material culture (or in other words–the stuff people owned whether it survives or not). The stories discussed with visitors that come about from this work must also be honest (slave trading, whippings, threats, resistance, etc.), and they must be human (all the people on the plantation have humanity–even negative human traits). Tell the stories of love/heartache, hate, ideas, courage, success/failures, faith, intelligence, beauty, fear, generosity, and creativity. The brilliance of what is often seen in these places of slavery (furnishings and buildings) could only have been sustained through the variety of enslaved persons who built and maintained buildings, planted/tended/harvested crops, dusted furniture, washed dishes, made nails, pried open oysters and turned them into soups and sauces, and washed clothes. These stories must exist alongside the stories of the slaveholders, because that was the lived experience of slavery.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Interpreting Christmas and Slavery

  1. Lindsey

    How true. So many historic Christmas programs fall short. I agree that primary sources are the key to improving that situation. Glad to see that a site has considered that and implemented appropriate programming.

  2. Carolyn W

    Brilliant! Keep up the good work!

  3. Pat Young

    Thanks for this wonderful essay.

  4. Always great to hear your thoughts. Good stuff.

    A question, since people often do programs like the Christmas one because “it is expected” what has been the reaction when you haven’t hosted a program?

    • Thanks Braden for reading. Side note: Hope all is well.

      On point: In the off years that we haven’t had one, I have explained why we were not having one to staff and to the community members who have wondered. We have had other programs (living history, lectures, and tours) that filled the gap during the sesquicentennial programming at the City Point unit so it we didn’t completely abandon any programming. I know how these events can become “expected” because they existed for so many years (if not decades). And with some tweaking, I believe for the most part these “expected” programs (and there are a whole host of them ranging from Christmas to Independence Day) can open up important windows into the past and be engaging and thought/conversation provoking for our visitors at a myriad of historic sites.

  5. Cynthia Booker

    Thank you for your thoughtful writings about the broader picture.

    • Thank you for reading! What I hope this post will do is provide some help to historic sites that this is possible AND/OR that it will provide us as visitors to demand that these sites get more honest.

  6. Thank you for this important commentary. I will be sharing it with the teachers served by our Teaching with Primary Sources Virginia program.

  7. Just read the article you co-authored for Civil War History. Very good piece.

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