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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Christmas Past

The Christmas Story, Gullah Edition

Each year at Christmas, I have tried to bring my readers a taste of how Christmas was celebrated in South Carolina just before and during the Civil War.  This year, I'm particularly delighted to bring you the story of Christmas from Luke 2: 1-20, as told in De Nyew Testament, translated into the Gullah language, American Bible Society, 2005.

Jedus Bon
Luke 2: 1-21

1 Een dat time, Caesar Augustus been de rula ob de Roman people. E mek a law een all de town een de wol wehe hab tority, say, ebrybody haffa go ta town fa count by de head an write down e name. 

2 Dis been de fus time dey count by de head, jurin de time Quirinius de gobna ob Syria country.

3 So den, ebrybody gone fa count by de head, ta e own town weh e ol people been bon.

4 Now Joseph same fashion gone fom Nazareth town een Galilee. E trabel ta de town name Betlem een Judea, weh de ole people leada, King David, been bon. Joseph gone dey cause e blongst ta David fambly.   

5 E gone fa count by de head, an Mary gone long wid um. E gage fa marry um. An Mary been speckin. 

6 Same time wen dey been dey, time come fa Mary gone een. 

7 E hab boy chile, e fusbon. E wrop um op een closs wa been teah eenta scrip an lay um een a trough weh dey feed de cow an oda animal dem. Cause Mary an Joseph beena stay weh de animal sleep. Dey ain been no room fa dem eenside de bodin house.

De Shephud Dem Go fa See de Chile Jedus

8 Now some shephud been dey een de fiel dat night. Dey beena stay dey, da mind

9 Den one angel ob de Lawd appeah ta um. De night time done lightnin op jes like day clean broad. Cause ob dat, de shephud mos scaid ta det. 

10 Bot de angel tell um say, Mus dohn feah! A hab good nyews wa gwine mek  ebrybody rejoice. 

11 Cause A come fa tell oona, Right now, dis day, a Sabior done bon fa oona. E Christ de Lawd. An e bon een David town.’

12 A gwine tell oona wa oona gwine see dey. Cause ob dat, oona gwine know A done tell oona de trute. Oona gwine find de chile wrop op een closs wa been teah eenta scrip, an e been leddown een a trough.

13 All ob a sudden, a heapa oda angel fom heaben been longside dat angel. Dey all da praise God, say,

14 "Leh we gii glory ta God een de mos high heaben.
Leh dey be peace ta dem een de wol wa hab God fabor!”

15 Den de angel lef um an gone back ta heaben. An de shephud dem say ta one noda, Leh we go ta Betlem fa see dis ting wa happen oba dey. De Lawd esef done sen e angel fa tell we.

16 So de shephud dem mek hace an gone ta Betlem fa look. Wen dey git dey, dey find Mary an Joseph an de chile. An dat chile been leddown een a trough. 

17 Atta de shephud shim, dey done tell ebrybody bout de chile. Dey tell um all wa de angel done say consaanin um. 

18 An all de people wa de shephud dem tell been stonish. 

19 Mary memba all dis ting an study bout um. 

20 De shephud dem gone back ta dey fiel. Dey da praise God. Dey da rejaice tommuch fa all dey done see an yeh. All wa de angel done tell um, e stan jes like e say.

If you have trouble reading this, try comparing it to The King James Version of the Bible, or simply read the sounds out loud.



Christmas, 1861, in Charleston

While the Union Army was trying its best to celebrate a festive Christmas in the Hilton Head/Beaufort area of South Carolina, the atmosphere was quite different in Charleston.  The war had not yet impacted the citizens directly, but another tragedy had done its best to wreck the holiday spirit. On the evening of December 11th, a random spark from a foundry set off a fire that traveled rapidly through the wooden buildings of the slave market and spread throughout the city. By the time firefighters managed to corral the blaze by blowing up buildings in its path, the devastation was unthinkable.

The blasts continued until the fire reached from the Cooper River to the Ashley River and burned itself out. When it was over, some 540 acres had burned, 600 buildings, most of them private residences, had been destroyed, and five churches had collapsed. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people were homeless and destitute.  The local papers estimated that the losses would exceed eight million dollars in the currency of that time.

For the Grenville family, whose story fills the pages of my upcoming novel, Damned Yankee, all was lost.  their house on Logan Street collapsed into piles of embers, and Jonathan's place of employment as a history teacher had disappeared as well.  They took refuge with Susan's mother, whose house stood unharmed behind one of the firebreaks, but their losses were unimaginable. Here's the scene as mother-in-law Elizabeth Dubois tries to pull the family together for the holidays.

Without preamble, Mrs. Dubois launched into her agenda. “Christmas is one week from today.  The rituals and holidays of our world arrive on their own schedule without regard for our troubles, or anger, or inconveniences. Your small children have a right to believe that Christmas will come without fail on its appointed day and that Saint Nicholas will arrive with his rewards for good behavior. Our slaves also have a right to expect that they will be given a few days of relief from their duties and that they will receive their semi-annual provisions of clothing and food stores. We are not going to disappoint them.”

Taking the silence for agreement, she went on, ticking off the items for consideration. “First, we must let the slaves know when they can celebrate their Slave Yule. I propose that their holiday start after lunch on Saturday and continue through Monday.  That will put them back to work by Christmas Eve. That will also give the cooks time to prepare some cold meals for us that will carry us through the weekend. But more important, we must be sure that they receive their due allotments.  I have already laid aside two sets of winter clothing for each of my slaves, plus provisions of sugar, salt, flour, salt pork, molasses, and cornmeal for each family. But what about our newcomers?”

“You taught me well, Mother.  I had our provisions and clothing set aside long before the fire. I brought with me the bundle of clothes, and the foodstuffs went into your own larder when we arrived. All our slaves will have something to celebrate.”

“And celebrate they will.  We have always allowed them to build a large bonfire in the slave yard in the evenings, and to hold a ritual Stomp, even if it goes on far into the night. They are also accustomed to holding wreath-making parties in the yard and decorating both their own cabins and the main house, so be prepared for pine boughs and winter flowers everywhere, starting almost immediately. The children will have their Christmas tree, too.”

“They always love the tree, but there won’t be much under it, I’m afraid.”  Susan’s smile faded. “Saint Nicholas is on short rations, and there’s almost nowhere left to shop.”

“Leave that to me,” Mrs. Dubois said.  “You haven’t been up in our attic for years, but you’ll find that it is stuffed with the remnants of your childhood. When you and Robert and Annaliese tired of your toys, I stashed them away in hopes of someday having grandchildren who would love them again.  It’s time to drag out those reminders of Christmases Past.”

At that reassurance even Jonathan began to look pleased. “Thank you, Mother Dubois. It may be hard to ignore the circumstances all around us, but we will make the effort for the children’s sake.”


Christmas dinner, too, exceeded everyone’s expectation. The tablecloth was nearly hidden by platters of ham and roast turkey, fried fish, oysters, corn pudding, sweet potatoes, green beans, field peas, and rice with gravy. Wine for everyone over the age of sixteen and sweet tea for the children helped wash down second helpings.The sideboard featured blackberry pie, a tall coconut cake, a trifle, gingerbread men, and fruitcake.

“Mother, this was truly a feast.”

“This is perhaps the last we shall have together, so I wanted Cook to make it special. But I don’t want to think of that now.  I peeked into the parlor a short time ago, and there were several mysterious boxes under the tree.  Shall we adjourn there and see what Saint Nicholas may have left?”

The children, well-schooled in containing their excitement, sat cross-legged around the tree, with the adults drawing chairs up behind them.  Mrs. Dubois suggested they begin with the youngest and move upward. Little Jamie beamed and then squealed as he pulled wrappings off a set of wooden blocks, a top, and a hobby horse. “Your mother played with those when she was your age,” Mrs. Dubois told him.  “She kept them in very good condition, so you will have to do the same.”

Next came Robert, who sat puzzling over a tube-shaped package, trying to guess the contents before opening it.  Mrs. Dubois squirmed with impatience. “Please be careful with it, Robbie, and open it before you drop it and break it.” 

“I . . . I don’t know what this is,” he stammered.

“It’s a spyglass, dear, one that belonged to your Uncle Robert.  Here, let me show you.  You look through this end and it brings distant objects much closer.  You can use it to look out over the harbor and watch passing ships, or point it at the night sky to study the stars, or look into the trees and watch birds up close.”

“Just don’t point it at the neighbor’s windows,” young John laughed.

“And don’t you go giving him ideas!”

Next it was Becca’s turn.  “Your present comes in two packages,” her grandmother told her.  “Open the smaller one first.” Becca looked into  the box and carefully lifted out a small doll and dozens of pieces of furniture. Her brow furrowed as she looked at them.

 “What. . . .?”

“Now just lift up that huge box.  You’ll have to stand to do it.” As the top came off, the little girl gasped and fell to her knees. “It’s a house! It . . It looks just like this house.”

“Yes it does.  Your grandfather built that dollhouse for your mother.  He carved the furniture, too, while I sewed tiny curtains and rag rugs and bedspreads.”  

“Oh, I adored that dollhouse,” Susan said. “Becca, you may have to let me help you play with it.”

“That would be fun!”

“Now Mary Sue. You have only one package to open.”

“It feels like a book,” she said, trying to hide her disappointment.

“So it is.  Open it.”

The Care and Feeding of Horses,” she read. “Why . . . ?”

“You’re going to need all of that information as you raise your new foal.”

“My foal? You mean . . .? Oh, Grandmother! I’m getting a baby horse?”

“Mother!” Susan looked horrified.

“Now don’t fuss at me, Susan.  “This young lady has been asking for a pony for years.  She didn’t get one, and now she’s getting too old for one. She needs her own horse, but I wanted her to have the experience of raising the animal.  So . . . Mr. Dickenson down at the livery stable has a brand new foal.  She’s too young to leave her mother just yet, but as soon as she is weaned —and as soon as you are settled somewhere—he has promised to deliver her. In the meantime, you can visit her every day and let her get to know you.  In fact, we may be able to walk down there tomorrow morning.”

“Oh, I can’t wait! But I’ll start reading right away.”

Eddie’s gift came in an even smaller box.  He jiggled it carefully and then opened it to reveal a key. Holding it up, he turned to his grandmother.  “What does it open?”

“The rest of your present. In the library, there is a glass cabinet. Behind that locked door is your grandfather’s huge collection of agricultural books, explaining everything from raising cotton to fighting rice weevils and setting chickens to hatch.  He valued that collection more than almost anything else in his possession — said it had made him a successful planter. I thought you might feel the same way.”

“Can I go and look now?”

“Not quite yet. We have a few gifts left. Young John, so dapper today in your cadet uniform, you are missing one important item—your ceremonial sword.” From behind the sofa, Mrs. Dubois pulled a carved leather scabbard holding a shining steel sword. “This blade was first used in the Revolutionary War by your great-grandfather.  I trust you will use it sparingly but well.”
Johnnie was speechless as he strapped it to his belt.

“And Charlotte. You have a special position in our family, since you were the first of a new generation and have been the first to give us a second generation. And so I am entrusting you with the family Bible.  It carries the birth, marriage, and death dates of your Dubois ancestors, going back to Martinique and before that to France.  I have entered the names of Georgie and Annie for you, but from here on, I entrust you with keeping the family history. And to go along with it, this box contains two hand-embroidered baptismal gowns, one worn by your mother and one by her brother Robert.  I would be honored if Georgie and Annie could wear them when they are christened.”

Charlotte clasped the Bible to her chest. “I am the one who is honored.  Thank you.”

“Now can we . . .”

“No. You may think of your parents as old, but to me, they are still my children, and I have an envelop for each of them. Susan, this contains the deed to this house. It is yours to do with as you will.  And Jonathan, this is the deed to Pine View Farm outside of Aiken, South Carolina. If the two of you choose to stay in Charleston, the farm will provide you with a steady outside source of income.  My attorney will continue to administer the land and its sharecroppers. But if you decide to leave Charleston, I hope you will at least visit the farm and consider the opportunities it may offer you to start over.”



The Army Version of Christmas, 1861

After the joyous celebrations of the slaves, Christmas Day at Roundheads Headquarters
moved from somber to dismal as the day progressed. The staff officers started the morning by
traipsing out to the Presbyterian church, where they expected Reverend Browne to rejoice in his
recovery and in the true meaning of the holiday. Instead, he treated them to a grim picture of the
Holy Family, driven out of Bethlehem by the evil actions of Herod and into exile in the barren
land of Egypt. With the help of Browne’s clever rhetoric, Herod appeared as Jefferson Davis,
ordering the slaying of young black children. The angel’s voice became that of Lincoln, calling
on all good Christian men to travel to a distant land to save their country. Egypt’s shore took on
the characteristics of the Atlantic coast, complete with sea grass to replace the bullrushes.

Sand was sand, and the message was clear. This was an exile, one to be suffered willingly until the
good Lord chose to send the Roundheads home. Instead of Christmas carols, Browne called the
men to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers,” a hymn rousing enough, but certainly not designed to
put the regiment in a holiday mood. They left the church gloomily reminded of their own exile.


Back at the Leverett House, Bessie the cook had outdone herself to prepare a Christmas
feast. First, she sent out oysters on the half shell, followed by a fish soup brimming with clams,
shrimp, and chunks of snapper. Then the slave girls brought the main feast while the startled
Roundheads watched in amazement. At one end of the side board, a fat turkey spilled forth his
chestnut and cornbread stuffing. At the other end sat a roasted boar’s head, apple in mouth,
ready for carving should anyone be brave enough to tackle the chore. In between were bowls of
sweet potatoes, green beans, field peas, rice, gravy, turnip greens, and tiny broiled quail. The
finishing touch—blackberry and pecan pies, sugar cookies and gingerbread men, and a formidable
fruitcake—awaited the diners on the back buffet server.

The staff took their places at what had become a banquet table, draped in fine linen to set
off the decorated china service and the sparkling silver. All were still dressed in their churchgoing
finery, so they presented a handsome picture. Nellie lingered until last, making sure all
was in order. Then she slipped into her accustomed place at the foot of the table, facing Colonel
Leasure, who commanded the attention of the table.

After a stuffy dinner marked by various arguments among the staff officers, the next hours were filled with the demands of
hospitality. The house quickly filled, and not only with the staff of the Roundhead Regiment.
General Stevens showed up early, accompanied by his brigade officers. That was no surprise, of
course. General Stevens was famous for his ability to scent out any affair at which alcohol
might be playing a part. The other regiments, too, began to arrive—the Pennsylvanians from the
Fiftieth, followed by the New York Highlanders, and the Michiganders. No other regimental
commander had thought to throw a reception for his own men, so the Roundheads played host
to the entire brigade.

It was not a terribly merry celebration, but it was loud. The syllabub, whose ingredients
Colonel Leasure professed not to know, was a tremendous hit. Nellie knew, because she had
helped whip it, that it contained a bottle of brandy and a bottle of port in addition to the usual
ingredients. As the afternoon progressed, however, she noticed the level of the punch bowl
never seemed to decrease, although many cups were being filled from it. 

Doubting this was evidence of one of Reverend Browne’s miracles, she watched closely and had only to wait a few
minutes to catch an officer surreptitiously emptying the contents of a pocket flask into the bowl.
Some gentlemen, well-schooled in their manners, brought a Christmas gift of wine with them,
and those bottles, too, were finding their way to the punch bowl. Nellie hurried out to find
Bessie, to see if she could dilute the alcohol with a bit more whipped milk.
As usual, the cook was already prepared. “Don’ you worry, Miss Nellie. I’s pourin’ in more
milk ever’ time dey adds more likker. At least it be gonna coat dere stomachs.”


Slave Yule, 1861

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
houses.”

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
house.

 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
words.

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
city.

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.

Slave Yule, 1861

The Roundhead Regiment from Pennsylvania had strong abolitionist beliefs. But what were they to do about the slaves they found occupying the house they wanted to use as their regimental headquarters.Slavery had not yet been abolished, so, despite the fact that their owners had fled from Beaufort, leaving the slaves behind, they could not just be turned out into the streets.  Within minutes some enterprising slave dealer would have corralled them, marked them as runaways, and resold them to someone else.

On the other hand, how could a Union Army regiment use slave labor  without appearing hypocritical?  The answer, according to Col. Leasure, was to treat the slaves as honored employees with generous Christmas bonuses:

Slave Yule was a resounding success. Colonel Leasure invited the slaves to gather in the
forecourt on the Saturday morning before Christmas and distributed their Christmas gifts. “It’s
early,” he explained, “but this way you will get to enjoy your gifts as part of your celebration
for the next few days.”

Nellie had done a wonderful job of Christmas shopping. Her trip to the ransacked stores in
downtown Beaufort was disappointing, but she had found many great ideas when she talked to
the camp sutler. Each of the men received a pipe and a plug of tobacco. The teenaged boys got
pocketknives, while the younger boys received slingshots and balls. The women had new
headscarves and the army ‘housewives,’ or sewing kits. Teenaged girls received mirrors and
ribbons, and there were rag dolls for the littlest girls. All adults were given a small amount of
money to spend on whatever they chose, and the children had enough peppermint sticks and
oranges to last for days.

While the slaves had been busy at their tasks, a couple of the regimental carpenters had
slipped into the stairwells that led to the slave quarters. They patched the stairs and installed
handrails, both for the family rooms above the kitchen and the stable hands’ quarters above the
carriage house. And when Cook opened the door to her cookhouse on Saturday morning, she
found hams, barrels of flour and cornmeal, prized sugar and coffee, and bags of beans and rice.
“All of dis fo’ us? We’uns gonna has oursel’s a feast.” 

When Nellie stopped by later in to see if Cook had everything she needed, the bustling
 slave woman hugged her.

“Thank you. You be doin’ so much for us black folk.” She hesitated, and then added, “You
can calls me Bessie if you wants.” Nellie felt as if she had been given a gift all her own.

The officers and staff of the regiment watched the activities in the yard with a mixture of
amazement and puzzlement. “What’s that huge pile of brush for?” Private Stevenson asked
Uncle Bob. “There’s enough of it, but it doesn’t look like it would make a good bonfire.”

“No, we not be gonna burn dat. Dat’s wild grape vine, wisteria, an’ greenery fo’ makin’ de
wreaths. You come out back later dis afternoon an’ we’ be showin’you how we puts ‘em
t’gether.”

“Wreaths? Oh, as in decorations!”

“Yessir. We be doin’ some big ‘uns for de front of de big house, and some little ‘uns for
oursel’s. De women be makin’ swags, too, for all de mantels in de main house.”

“No Christmas tree?”

“Ain’t no good Christmas trees growin’ round here, ‘lessin you wants to hang some paper
chains on a palmetto bush. And dem things so sharp, you doesn’t want ‘em in de house. But der
gonna be candles, once we gits through dippin’ ‘em and dryin’ ‘em tonight.”

The festive mood was contagious, and the Union soldiers soon found themselves humming
Christmas carols as they went about their business. Some even pitched in to help the slaves dig
their fire pit in the back yard. The only soul who seemed less than jovial was the recovering
Reverend Browne, who wandered downstairs from his sickroom to find out what all the racket
was about. “Do these people realize Christmas is a holy day?” he asked Colonel Leasure. “Are
they planning to go to their church? Or should I be making arrangements to preach to them?”

“I think they’ll hold their own kind of worship, Robert. Let them be.”

“Humph! Looks like heathen stuff out there to me,” he grumbled. “What are we doing about
our own Christian men, Daniel? Is there a place here where we can hold services?”

“There’s a Presbyterian Church in town, and our men have already been holding regular
prayer services. If you’d like, we can have a Christmas service there. Would you sketch out a
worship program? I can have John Nicklin and his boys provide the music.”

And a proper Christmas dinner?”

“All taken care of, Robert. Nellie is a superb manager, and she and Cook have been working
on menus for days. We’ll serve our own resident staff here just after noon on Christmas Day,
and then we’re opening the house for visits from all the company staffs. We’ll have syllabub
and desserts, along with some good camaraderie. I want to help our men feel a bit less lost here
in the deep south at Christmas.”

“Syllabub? What’s that?”

“Well, Nellie says it’s Cook’s special holiday drink. Contains whipped milk, fruit juice, and
other flavorings. I thought it best not to inquire too closely about that.”

“And who will serve all this, since you seem to have given the slaves a vacation?”

Colonel Leasure was rapidly losing patience with his cantankerous old friend. “Robert!
Give me credit for being in control of this regiment. The slaves are doing their celebrating now,
and we’re letting them enjoy themselves to the fullest. By Christmas morning, they’ll be back at
work, and we’ll have our holiday, as nice as I can make it for Pennsylvanians stranded in South
Carolina. You don’t need to worry about it, nor supervise it, for that matter. Oh, and by the way.
You may want to keep to your room at the front of the house for the next few evenings, with the
door closed. There’ll be some singing and dancing in the yard, with my full approval!”