The slaves’ celebration was every bit as much fun as little Glory had predicted it would be.
It lasted from Saturday afternoon to Tuesday evening, which was also Christmas Eve. For
Nellie, the days ran seamlessly into each other. She had wandered out with Private Stevenson on
Saturday afternoon to learn how the slaves made their wreathes. Uncle Bob was eager to teach
them, but Nellie soon found her hands were not strong enough to control the thick grape vines
that formed the foundation of each wreath.
Bob took the thick end of a vine, twisted it into asymmetrical loop, and then began to wind the
rest of the vine in and out of the first loop. Soon
he had a circle of four or five intertwined vines that held its own shape. Then he picked a
second strand of wisteria vine, keeping up the same braiding motion, but weaving the thinner
vine more closely. It formed a network over the sturdy frame, one that could be used to hold the
various pieces of greenery in place.
At that point Nellie stepped in again, trying her hand at adding individual pine needle
clusters, sprigs of boxwood, sprays of leathery magnolia leaves, and holly branches. “Don’t be
puttin’ too much holly dere,” Uncle Bob warned. “Dose leaves be prickly and you be havin’
trouble holding de wreath if de holly branches be too close together.”
“How do you fasten the pine cones to the wreath?” Nelly asked.
Jist use a piece of wisteria like a string. I ties mine right under de top row of spines and
then ties de whole thing to de form.”
“But the one I did just hangs there,” she said.
“If’n you tie de cones on first and then fill around ‘em wit’ de pine, dey stays put,” Bob
said. “You does the same wit’ des here Japonica blossoms.”
“Oh, those are beautiful. I’ve never seen them before.”
“Dey’s de flowers from a tea bush, so I hears. De’re common around old plantation
Nellie had to admit her efforts were producing a lopsided and straggly wreath. “Better hide
this one on the warming kitchen door so no one sees it.” She laughed at her efforts. Still, she
enjoyed the experience tremendously, and the smell of pine sap and fresh flowers made Christmas
seem more real. The slaves already had an impressive array of decorations, and Bob hurried
off to supervise the hanging of wreaths on doors and windows all over the property.
Feeling a bit self-conscious about intruding on the slaves’ celebration, Nellie returned to the
But on Christmas Eve, the sounds coming from the yard tempted her to watch the festivities.
She had finished laying out the cold supper of biscuits, ham, and salad Maybelle had left
for the officers, when a cry of “Hear me!” drew her back to the door. An incredibly old black
woman stood in the doorway to the slave quarters. Dusk was settling over the yard, and firelight
reflected off light surfaces and drew attention to those who moved. Bent almost double, leaning
heavily on a walking stick as gnarled as she was, she summoned the children. “Come, an’ I be
gonna tell you ‘bout how de baby Jesus done come.”
Old Letitia slowly made her way toward a stool near the huge bonfire in the yard. She
launched into her tale as she walked, speaking the Gullah language Nellie had come to recognize
as the slaves’ private means of communication. The children flocked behind to hear her
Een dat time, Caesar Augustus been de big leada, de emperor ob de Roman people. E
make a law een all de town een de wol weh e habe tority, say ebrybody haffa go ta town
faa count by de hed and write down e name.
Nellie found herself translating in her head:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus,
that all the world should be taxed . . . And all went to be taxed, every one into his own
The simplicity and beauty of Letitia’s version took nothing away from the story, while making it
immediate and understandable to the children.
They clustered close to her, eyes wide, mouths open in wonder, as she recited the story of
Jesus’ birth. As she reached the part where the animals of the stable knelt down to the baby, one
of the horses whinnied from its stall and everyone—Nellie included—gasped. It was a magical
moment, one Nellie would remember for years whenever she heard the verses from the Gospel
of Luke. A bit later, it was the sound of singing that moved her, as the crowd marked the end of
Letitia’s recital with several spirituals.