Thursday, December 14, 2006

Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters

by Patricia C. McKissack and Fredrick L. McKissack. This is another book that is hard for me to read. It is the story of plantation Christmas celebrations in Virginia in 1859. The McKissacks give a lot of historical background to this period just before the Civil War, emphasizing how drastically life was about to change for the plantations of the south. The paintings by John Thompson are really beautiful. I would like prints of several of them to hang on my wall. The portraits of Black families of men, women and children working, playing, dreaming and celebrating are really gorgeous. The pictures of the white family celebrating in contrasting extravagant luxury are disturbing to me, however. . I can’t help see similarities with the modern extravagance of holiday celebrations all around us even as some suffer crushing poverty.

The text does a good job of describing the day to day life of work and planning and compromise as the plantation prepares to celebrate Christmas. Early traditions of Christmas trees, caroling and cooking for the holidays are explained in historical context. The complex interactions between slaves and owners are presented on several levels. As the Big Days approach the slaves are seen working to prepare the big house in all its glory. In the early morning and late at night they work to prepare their own celebrations by sweeping dirt floors, patching together gifts from scraps and scrounging for musical instruments for late night dancing.

They are joyful and exuberant in their anticipation of the days off and then heartbroken and devastated at the end of the holiday on Jan. 1 when Massa tells who will be sold off to another plantation. While it is good to know this history and see the strength and bravery and resourcefulness of the slave families, it is deeply disturbing and saddening to witness the foundational injustice and cruelty. The goodness of the owner’s family is as small and as basic as giving a day off for the field hands (not the house slaves or drivers, of course), a little extra food on Christmas day, and a few simple gifts from their excess. While there is beauty and joy in the celebrations and of course I would not want the slaves to have lived without the simple kindnesses they enjoyed, it hurts to see how meager it was.

As an adult reading this I can see the irony and incongruity but I am afraid the sweetness of the story might cover the tragedy so that children may only see that this lifestyle, while painful for the slaves, worked out OK on the whole. I guess that brings up a bigger question: how much of the ugly truth do children need to hear, and how young? I think this book is a good one to share with middle grade and older children where you can have discussion about these things. Taken on its own I think the depth that is here in the text would be missed by most pre-adolescent children. It is also good to learn the historical background for the songs, traditions and recipes given. Sweet potato pie, holly and evergreen decorations and the simple handmade gifts imbued with family connections become more meaningful when the distant African and Southern slave cultural roots are known. On the whole I think this book is a treasure, but not an easy one to carry.

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