“Every child rises early on Christmas morning to see the Johnkannaus” [Harriet Jacobs]: The competing meanings of Christmas for the enslaved in North Carolina

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Drawing on archival material from slaveholding families in North Carolina and the narratives of formerly enslaved in the State, the John Kooner parades and other Christmas festivities are employed in this article as a lens to consider what meanings Christmas might have held for some members of the enslaved within this State. Such celebrations were arguably used by enslavers to demonstrate their good will and benevolence by allowing some of the enslaved to engage in carnivalesque behaviour–costuming, dancing, drinking, and feasting–for a brief period of time over the festive season. Such activity allowed some of the enslaved in the state to temporarily upend the social and racial hierarchies of the antebellum south, locating themselves in physical and psychical spaces they were usually not permitted access to. Others however were not permitted to enjoy the festivities at all. The analysis therefore will explore the varying experiences of Christmas in North Carolina for the enslaved and the wider meanings we might draw from this. The article concludes by reflecting on how this period of brief respite for the enslaved was brought to an abrupt end by New Year’s Day, often the date set for the hiring and selling of the enslaved. It will consider the repercussions of these moments of departure and family fragmentation, especially in the wake of the Christmastide celebrations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)230-250
Number of pages21
JournalComparative American Studies
Issue number3-4
Early online date27 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


  • slavery
  • Christmas
  • John Kooner
  • North Carolina
  • slave hiring
  • slave family separation
  • Slave experience

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