Before Christmas emerged as a commercial success it led a checkered social life. In the 13 colonies far from a Silent Night, Holy Night it was known as a heavy drinking, brawling festival, a raucous blend of July 4th and New Years Eve.
But as the struggle over slavery in the United States heated up in the 1830s, a band of Christian women abolitionists guided it into a holiday devoted to the prince of peace and emancipation.
In 1834, African American and white men and women members of William Lloyd Garrison’s newly formed Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society saw Christmas as an opportunity to expose a hypocritical republic that proclaimed liberty yet held millions of African men, women and children captive as slaves. Women assumed the lead, boldly defying a society that denied them a public voice or political opinions. To finance the abolition cause, these women organized Christmas bazaars that sold donated gifts, and trumpeted anti-slavery messages.
Because women were prominent, the media labeled abolitionist gatherings “promiscuous assemblies” and denounced male supporters as “Aunt Nancy men.” Even in the face of physical attacks sanctioned by the northern media, anti-slavery men and women persisted. After some meetings women linked arms, black and white, and surrounded their men to protect them from angry mobs.
During this Victorian era women abolitionists also took the lead in confronting a Northern public that felt the degradation of enslaved women and children was too sensitive and immodest a subject for public discussion. With clear language and images these women used their fairs to show the brutality and rape suffered by their enslaved sisters.
The women who conducted Christmas fairs also tried to float experimental attractive symbols and language. They first adopted the evergreen shrub. To penetrate the Northern conscience they compared the common practice of whipping children ? beginning to gain widespread disapproval ? to the brutal whipping of enslaved men, women and children the media hid from public view.
Women also used turned the holiday into a generous, gift-giving Christmas that rewarded children. Their emphasis on children asked Americans to grant that enslaved people, who had even fewer rights than children, deserved Christian care and generosity. This strategy was also designed to challenge slaveholder propaganda portraying enslaved adults as children. At least one early Massachusetts anti-slavery fair featured an interracial childrens chorus known as “the Boston Garrison Juvenile Choir” which sang such popular holiday songs as “The Sugar Plums.”
By the end of the 1830s, Christmas fairs had become the primary source of abolitionist funds. Bazaar sponsors now replaced the small green shrub with a tall, full-grown evergreen tree. The tree idea was inspired by Charles Follen, a German immigrant, children’s rights advocate and professor of literature at Harvard University, who had been fired in 1835 because of his anti-slavery activities. That Christmas, popular British author Harriet Martineau visited Follen’s home and became entranced by his towering evergreen. Martineau enthusiastically described Follen’s “Christmas tree” in one of her books and the public became enthralled. The Christmas tree stood as a kind of tall green freedom flag.
Arrayed against a slave-holding elite that held millions of men, women and children in chains, dominated southern state governments and dictated to the three branches of the federal government, women anti-slavery crusaders drew from their moral strength and their creative intellectual arsenal. Their early anti-slavery weapons handed us such endearing symbols as the Christmas emphasis on children, gift giving and the tall evergreen.
To expose the country’s greatest crime, challenge its largest vested interest and persuade fellow citizens their cause was righteous, a daring interracial band of women transformed an antisocial and rowdy festival into a humane holiday that promoted freedom for all. Shining light on the sins of human bondage and demanding emancipation on Christmas and the other 364 days, these pioneer women agitators beat hard on closed doors. Eventually their crusade not only liberated their southern brothers and sisters but gave birth to a movement that freed all women in the United States. These women gave American democracy, gave all of us, a Christmas gift that never stops giving.
WILLIAM LOREN KATZ is the author of Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage and forty other American history books. He is a Visiting Scholar at New York University. Copyright WILLIAM LOREN KATZ 2010 His website is www.williamlkatz.com