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A Gullah Christmas

By Luana M. Graves Sellars

Christmas is a world-wide tradition, yet in the Gullah Geechee community, the a Gullah Christmas had year-long significance. The Christian belief and traditional focus of Christmas being founded in the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth is also what the Gullah believe, however, for them, the holiday had a deeper meaning.

The sharing of gifts was a part of a Gullah Christmas celebration, but it was more spiritual and not as commercialized, as it is today. As a result of sea island isolation, it was understood that Santa Claus had a difficult time reaching the islands, but the opportunity to spend time together and the building excitement surrounding Gullah family members returning to the island was one of the true highlights of the holiday that they enjoyed. Christmas was a week-long celebration that included the entire family’s involvement all year.

Preparations for Christmas began in the spring, when turkeys would lay their eggs. It was the children’s responsibility to nurture and care for the hatch lings, so that they were ready to be sold off island in the fall. Caring for the turkeys was a great motivation for them to ensure that every single one was counted for, fed and plump enough for sale at the market. Selling Christmas turkeys was an important financial source of income for the family, because not only did it provide money for the family, it also ensured that Christmas toys were coming for the children. 

As a farming community, from the spring into the summer, each crop had its purpose. In the spring, fruits like blackberries, mulberries and plums were harvested so that they could be prepared to be pressed into wine for Christmas dinner.  Preserving summer fruits like peaches, sugar figs and pears for dessert, okra, tomatoes, and other vegetables, as well as fish for the Christmas dinner was also an important part of the preparation for the holiday. Other vegetables were also prepared, including corn, which was picked and ground into grits for meals throughout the winter months. The fall harvest brought forth the ripening of pecans, walnuts and wild chinquapins which were in abundance and to be made into pies.     

The coming Christmas was considered an important time to show and be your best, so any sprucing up that needed to be done around the house was done in the fall. Having enough firewood chopped and stacked for the stove so that it was ready for all of the week’s cooking of  freshly caught fish, pork, raccoon, rabbit and turkey. 

Photo Credit Dreamerstime

By the time that Christmas Eve arrived, neighborhood by neighborhood, Gullah families would come together and enjoy worship services at the local Praise House. Spending time in worship and celebration was the most important part of the holiday. Gift giving, especially for the children was included, but not the reason for the holiday. Santa didn’t have reindeer that left Savannah, but the Waldorf, River Queen, Wish Away, Rome, Alligator, Vernon, and the Edgar Hurst were the names of the boats that delivered toys, gifts and goods from the mainland were always an exciting sight, because they brought the presents that went under Christmas trees decorated with pine cones, Spanish Moss and holly bushes.   

Throughout Christmas week, a breakfast of shrimp and grits gave everyone a hearty start to the day, which involved all of the families visiting each other while exchanging gifts or serving meals and fresh fruits. On Hilton Head island, in particular, the annual Christmas Day marsh tacky horse race down Marshland Road was always a favorite island tradition. 

The Sea Island Gullah Christmas was a community wide celebration that not only brought families together, but it was an opportunity to sing spirituals, swap stories and folk tales. The Gullah Christmas was more than a single holiday, it was a way of life rooted in faith, love and family.

New Year’s Eve & The Watch Night Service

Freedom’s Eve – The Birth of Reconstruction

During slavery, the anticipation of the end of slavery and oppression, as you could imagine, was thought of with tremendous expectation. At the time the rumor of Emancipation was circulating, the first Freedom’s Eve was created throughout most of the Black churches as a symbolic way of celebrating the end of slavery.  Freedom’s Eve became a tradition that still brings us together on January 1st every year to celebrate “how we got over.” The tradition of this celebration continues to consist of African American descendants of slaves entering into a new year in some cases, on their knees with praise and worship. 

January 1, 2018, marked the 154th anniversary of Freedom’s Eve celebrations. The term, Freedom’s Eve is not widely used anymore, however, the concept was inspired from celebration services held by the Christian Moravian church in the Czech Republic in the 1700’s called a Watch Night Service. The practice of the New Year’s Eve Watch Night celebration was eventually adopted by the founder of the Methodist church, John Wesley. The event brought Methodists together for a time of reflection of their faith with a focus on the previous year in a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving. By 1770, the first Watch Night Service was brought to the United States at St. George’s Methodist Church. The adoption of the practice into the Black church is credited to two slaves, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, who attended the first American Watch Night Service. The slaves, eventually became the founders of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (A.M.E.).

The Watch Night tradition became the inspiration for not only celebration of Freedom’s Eve for African Americans, but also as a remembrance of the slave’s journey toward freedom. The merging of tradition came as a symbolic historical marker on December 31st 1862, when during the Civil War, freed blacks and as well as slaves gathered in churches to wait for confirmation kneeling in praise and worship for Lincoln to sign into law the Emancipation Proclamation. Today, the Watch Night Service is mostly associated with Black churches regardless of the denomination. The tradition of gathering at church on New Year’s Eve to usher in the new year in prayer and worship is one that will continue for years to come. 

In most Black communities in America, corner after corner, churches are visible and accessible to the masses. There is no question as to the value and importance to the Black community that the Black church has contributed in the history of the United States. Like so many years ago, the Black church continues to be the spiritual backbone of the community. As such, the church needs to be connected to and vocal on the relevant day to day issues that affect the lives of the congregation. As society has changed, so has the church in an effort to remain a vibrant and relevant part of the community. It’s vital role as a traditional religious and cultural anchor is unchanged and is important. Its role has grown to include other lifestyle elements like self-improvement classes, adult education and in some cases financial support for indigent members. As before, and today, it is necessary for the Black church to have an influential voice. In order for its voice to be heard, it requires the consistent infusion of support and dedication from not only its members, but it’s leadership, in order to keep itself grounded to the pulse of the community’s needs. 

The Black church has the important responsibility of continuously maintaining an evolutionary role in today’s society as the vehicle for delivering spirituality, culture and empowerment in every aspect of the Black experience.  

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