Christmas on the Plantation
In the old days, before the Civil War, plantation life in Virginia was very attractive; with its big white house set beside the road, and surrounded with old-fashioned shrubs and great spreading trees. The Major was a genial and kindly host, and a most considerate master to the great family of slaves that worked his broad acres and loved him and his wife. The two were called "Old Marster" and "Old Miss," by these faithful servants who had grown up on the place, and regarded the big house as their home. They knew no other, and cared for no other.
The great plantation festival of the year was Christmas. The house was filled with guests, with members of the family who came from far and near, and with the boys and girls from school. Everybody was busy and happy—from the master and mistress down to the youngest dusky "hand" that worked the plantation. All labor was laid aside; the crops had been gathered and stored, the wood had been cut, the hogs had been killed, the lard tried out, and the sausage meat made. There was plenty to eat and wear, and the time had come to make merry.
For days before Christmas, preparations had been going on. The mince-meat was chopped for the pies, cakes were baked, the turkeys were killed and hung up, and the pantry was filled to over-flowing with good things brought in the great wagons from town. The mistress had bought presents for everybody on the place, old and young, white and black, with candy, oranges, nuts, and raisins in abundance. Wagons had been going back and forth, the drivers laughing and happy in spite of the frosty air and heavy roads, bringing bundles and bags to be stored away until, on Christmas morning, the presents would be distributed. Every "hand" on the place expected a Christmas gift, and no one was disappointed.
In the woods, the axes had been busy cutting tough hickory for the big fires. Other wood might do for other seasons, but Christmas needed the sparkle and crackle of hickory, with its leaping flames and red glow. The wagons hauled the Yule logs into' the yard, where they were piled for use. Then evergreens were gathered and holly and mistletoe and bamboo were brought for decorating the parlor, hall and dining-room. Wreaths were made for the windows, and bunches of mistletoe for the chandeliers and arches. The house certainly looked very gay and cheerful!
In all this work the young men and maidens joined with many a merry joke. Who would stand under the mistletoe to be kissed? Who would hang up their stockings? What presents would each receive? These were questions in the minds of every one. The Major, white haired and smiling, was everywhere, beaming with happiness over his family, and his devoted slaves and servants.
And now Christmas Eve. Snow was falling, a white, fleecy covering for the ground like a velvet carpet. The cedars in the yard bent beneath their crystal burden. It was just cold enough to make the great leaping fire feel comfortable. The servants were busy in the kitchen putting finishing touches to the pies and puddings, cakes and tarts,—enough to feed an army. The house was ablaze with light, and the windows glowed a welcome invitation to those who might be coming for the holidays.
"Who would stand under the mistletoe?"
The wagons soon began to arrive, bringing the boys and girls from school, the guests to spend a day or two, or relatives and friends. Every room in the house would be filled with a laughing, jolly party. The Major and his wife stood at the open door, and kissed everybody who came. The servants, down at the Quarters, were getting ready also, singing and laughing, playing the banjo, and wondering which one of them would be the first to call out "Christmas Gift" to "Old Marster" and "Old Miss."
WHO WOULD STAND UNDER THE MISTLETOE?
Morning—Christmas morning! The stir began long before the sun had risen, the children, stealing like little ghosts up to the fireplaces to get their stockings so as to see what Santa Claus had brought. Soon, the doors opened and shut, and the cries of "Merry Christmas" could be heard from room to room. Then a great shout outside; the negroes had come to call "Christmas Gift"—a happy, contented crowd, jostling each other, every one of them smiling, and anxious to be the first to see the white folks.
Breakfast was a merry meal. The presents were distributed, useful articles as well as ornamental ones, the negroes bowing and bobbing their thanks, as they bore away their treasures. It was the rule for everybody to go to church on Christmas, and this custom was sacredly observed. The venerable pastor preached a sermon of praise and thanks-giving for life's many blessings. Then home, through the snow, to a dinner which was the great event of the day!
The table was a sight to do your heart good. The solid old mahogany boards groaned beneath their load of food. In the place of honor, was the big "gobbler," brown as a berry, and stuffed with chestnuts and sausages. There were also a huge roast of venison and a big country ham. Every kind of vegetable that could be had was served—sweet potatoes, rice and macaroni in abundance. Then pies, cake, jellies, syllabub followed, and there seemed no end to the feast. All the time, the room rang with good cheer, fun and jokes, while the Major and his wife sat looking on—all smiles and happiness.
Down in the Quarters, the negroes were having their feast also,—almost as bountiful and certainly as good as that at the big house. Then followed dancing and, maybe, a marriage, to celebrate the day, while they praised the "Old Marster" and the "Old Miss" for their goodness and kindness.
The day came to an end at last, as all happy days do! Can there ever be such times as those on the old plantation, where a kind-hearted master shared his abundance with those he loved and owned, and lived in peace, comfort and security because he lived in kindness and good-will?