Hiding in the guise of a holiday picture book, this Coretta Scott King award winner is really about a country on the brink of war. I was concerned at first that it would be providing an overly saccharine take on slave life in order to draw parallels between Christmas celebrations of the whites and blacks at the time, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. I should have know to trust Patricia and Fredrick McKissack who are excellent African American authors. Right from the outset, the Author’s note sets the historical tone for the book.
As the book continues, it covers traditions typical of plantation owners and slaves from the time leading up to Christmas through the New Year. It contains many specific references to songs and practices that would have been common at the time. But as I said before it is not simply about Christmas and the winter holidays. It is about the chatter in the drawing rooms about the unrest in the country. It is about the hopes of slaves that they will find a way to be free.
Since the book is told manly from the slave’s perspective, it keeps from idealizing the “Big House” Christmas too much and also uses this to call attention to the faults of the “Massa”. Despite the fact that a relatively sympathetic slave owner is depicted here, it is clear that you really can’t have a good owner.
Because of it’s historical information, this book is actually quite complex. I would recommend it for third graders with considerable adult assistance (such as in a teaching setting) or older. There are frequent references to important historical figures and events which will largely be unknown to students who have not had formal teachings regarding the Civil War and the years leading to the secession. Additionally, quotes from period songs are used and dialect is common throughout. This will provide an additional challenge for young readers.
All in all, it’s an interesting book, but there are mismatches between the content (better understood by much older students) and the format (resembles a picture book) and the tone (likely appropriate for middle grades readers).
Religion – There’s no question that a Christmas book has a fair chance of touching upon religion. Expect stories you know and some you don’t (Had you heard that the first frost is really stardust sprinkled over the land by the archangel Gabriel, sent to announce the Coming?)
Sex, Nudity, Dating – In a joke or riddle from the time kissin’ in briefly mentioned. A song talks of “courtin’ couples” who are “kissing the one they love best”. There’s talk of kissing under mistletoe.
Profanity – None.
Death, Violence and Gore – Boys got their hides tanned. There is a Christmas Eve hunt. A song says that someone killed a yellow cat. There is a “playful” ghost. A boy gets a pocket knife. There’s a song about preparing a possum for eating by carving him to the heart. They talk of John Brown’s hanging. Cholera killed many freed slaves. Many soldiers died in the Civil War. The notes at the end recount many hangings. Thirty people were killed in a revolt.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – Eggnog made with whiskey is consumed by slaves and Massa. Fruitcakes ripen in brandy. Sherry and Madeira are served. A pie recipe suggests using a tablespoon of rum. Men smoke after dinner. Guests sip cordials and egg nog. Slaves drink persimmon wine. Tobacco is sometimes given as a gift.
Frightening or Intense Things – There’s talk of being sold away from loved ones. Slaves are sold away. During the war, plantations burned. Some slaves are invited to come to the house to join the family, the master keeps track of who comes and who doesn’t, there may be retribution later even though it is technically a choice.