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Yuletide in Dixie

Slavery, Christmas, and Southern Memory
Robert E. May
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BUY Cloth · 352 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813942148 · $34.95 · Oct 2019
BUY Ebook · 352 pp. · ISBN 9780813942155 · $34.95 · Oct 2019

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.

Reviews:


"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

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

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."

Slate.com

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.

H-Slavery

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.

CHOICE

About the Author: 

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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