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Yuletide in Dixie

Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory
Robert E. May

BUY Cloth · 352 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813942148 · $34.95 · Oct 2019
BUY Ebook · 352 pp. · ISBN 9780813942155 · $27.95 · Oct 2019
BUY Paper · 352 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813945101 · $27.95 · Aug 2020

How did enslaved African Americans in the Old South really experience Christmas? Did Christmastime provide slaves with a lengthy and jubilant respite from labor and the whip, as is generally assumed, or is the story far more complex and troubling? In this provocative, revisionist, and sometimes chilling account, Robert E. May chides the conventional wisdom for simplifying black perspectives, uncritically accepting southern white literary tropes about the holiday, and overlooking evidence not only that countless southern whites passed Christmases fearful that their slaves would revolt but also that slavery’s most punitive features persisted at holiday time.

In Yuletide in Dixie, May uncovers a dark reality that not only alters our understanding of that history but also sheds new light on the breakdown of slavery in the Civil War and how false assumptions about slave Christmases afterward became harnessed to myths undergirding white supremacy in the United States. By exposing the underside of slave Christmases, May helps us better understand the problematic stereotypes of modern southern historical tourism and why disputes over Confederate memory retain such staying power today. A major reinterpretation of human bondage, Yuletide in Dixie challenges disturbing myths embedded deeply in our culture.


"Robert May's deeply researched portrayal of the realities and images of Christmas celebrations in the antebellum South offers new insights on the nature of slavery and its cultural impact. He shows that while not entirely mythical, proslavery depictions of holiday merrymaking and gift exchanges among slaves and their owners became a staple of the proslavery argument before the Civil War and a dominant theme in the Lost Cause romanticization of the South and slavery. But the realities of slavery were quite different, as he makes clear in this important work."

—James M. McPherson, author of Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

"Historical scholarship at its best—a gifted scholar taking on a myth-encrusted topic and systematically demolishing the distortions that have persisted for generations. It is both timely and important, particularly at this time in our history when race has taken such a central place in our national life."

—Charles Dew, Williams College, author of The Making of a Racist: A Southerner Reflects on Family, History, and the Slave Trade

In this deeply and imaginatively researched, carefully argued, and engagingly written book, Robert May focuses on Christmas rituals to provide a major reinterpretation of how slavery functioned in the Old South and to expose myths about African American slave and plantation existence that persist to this day.

John David Smith, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, author of We Ask Only for Even-Handed Justice: Black Voices from Reconstruction, 1865-1877

Yuletide in Dixie provides a master class in how to make powerful contributions to multiple subfields at once—Civil War memory, antebellum slavery, the Civil War itself—out of whatmight appear to be a minor subject. As May proves, the stakes of plantation Christmas myths are high. Fairytales of slaveholder generosity during Yuletide persist in large parts of the country, and if we want to "further racial progress" (259), May rightly argues that we must do the scholarly work to set the record straight.

Journal of the Civil War Era

It wasn’t until I read historian Robert May’s recent book Yuletide in Dixie: Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory that I understood how the story of "plantation Christmas" has long been providing this kind of cover to Lost Cause ideology. From the antebellum years of 1830–60, through the Civil War, and especially in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the myth of the Lost Cause solidified, apologists for slavery loved to talk about Christmas whenever they were defending the "Southern way of life."

Yuletide in Dixie is a masterful study of not only the intersection of Christmas traditions and slavery but also the collective ideology that supported the institution for centuries and continues to haunt historical memory today. May uses his study of Christmas in the Old South and command of the literature to build on a number of important historiographical traditions concerning the institution of slavery in the United States, the American slave experience, and historical memory in postwar America.


May (emer., Purdue Univ.) provides a complex analysis of antebellum Christmas ritual and its sterilization in memory and postbellum writing, suggesting something far darker.... Summing Up: Highly recommended.


May's fine work provides scholars and nonscholars alike with new perspectives on a time of yearthat illuminated, more than any other, the flawed logic of slaveholders and the complexexperience ot slaves.

North Carolina Historical Review

Recent historiography and ever intensifying public debates have shown us the depths of memory around antebellum slavery. Robert E. May’s Yuletide in Dixie convinces the careful reader not just of the ubiquity of the Lost Cause Christmas, but of its centrality to this larger body of public memory and academic scholarship. His book is by turns exhaustive and compelling, showing both a depth and rigor of scholarly research and keen facility for historical narrative. Far from merely an inconsequential entry in the growing literature of southern memory studies, it is a major and important work that offers crucial insights into slavery and the body of public memory work which has sought to justify, explain, or ignore it since emancipation.

Alabama Review

May’s study is well written, well researched and well referenced. He has examined an impressive amount of primary source material, including slave narratives, plantation records, newspapers as well as essays, memoirs and novels. Yuletide in Dixie is an interesting and thought-provoking read, addressing big issues in the historiography of slavery – power, paternalism, resistance and memory – in an original and interesting way.

Slavery & Abolition

Yuletide in Dixie is an important study that illuminates one of the Old South's most unusual traditions.

American Historical Review

Ultimately, May discredits master-class nostalgia and refutes scholarly depictions of paternalism. This book is driven by simmering anger at injustice.

Journal of American History

In this provocative, revisionist and sometimes chilling account, Robert E. May chides the conventional wisdom for simplifying black perspectives, uncritically accepting Southern white literary tropes about the holiday, and overlooking evidence not only that countless Southern whites passed Christmases fearful that their slaves would revolt but also that slavery’s most punitive features persisted at holiday time.

O'Henry Magazine

[T]his book shows how much power the nostalgic portrayal of slave Christmases... has had over the popular imagination.

Journal of Southern History

Yuletide in Dixie is an important work that will be of interest to scholars, graduate students, and non-academic audiences. Readers will find May’s critical treatment a worthy addition for understanding the ways that myths, lies, and Civil Warmemory influenced even understandings of antebellumChristmas traditions.

Louisiana History

About the Author(s): 

Robert E. May is Professor Emeritus of History at Purdue University and the author of Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America and other works about slavery and the South.

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