‘An Old-Time Christmas’ by Paul Laurence Dunbar

Dunbar, Paul Laurence 1900

An Old-Time Christmas by Paul Laurence Dunbar, 1900

The magic trick:

Making a thunderous comment about late 19th-century American race relations

This story is one of those that does more as fiction to tell the history of our country than any history book. It’s very short. The plot is compact. A woman longs for the culturally rich family-focused Christmases of her youth in the South. She attempts to revive the traditions for her son in New York City but runs into difficulty.

Short as it is, it sure packs a ton of complex ideas into four pages. It flirts dangerously close to the Old South’s Lost Cause arguments that African-American slaves actually liked it better as slaves living on the plantation. But no, that’s not quite it. The biggest message here is that life as free blacks in the North ain’t some perfect solution either. In 1900, the country still had a long way to go toward leveling the playing field. Christmas provides the backdrop, but the story’s central message is that of racial angst and confused identity. And that’s quite a trick on Dunbar’s part.

The selection:

In the ten years she had lived in New York, she had known no such feast-day. Food was strangely dear in the Metropolis, and then there was always the weekly rental of the poor room to be paid. But she had kept the memory of the old times green in her heart, and ever turned to it with the fondness of one for something irretrievably lost.

That is how Jimmy came to know about it. Jimmy was thirteen and small for his age, and he could not remember any such times as his mother told him about. Although he said with great pride to his partner and rival, Blinky Scott, “Chee, Blink, you ought to hear my ol’ lady talk about de times dey have down w’ere we come from at Christmas; N’Yoick ain’t in it wid dem, you kin jist bet.” And Blinky, who was a New Yorker clear through with a New Yorker’s contempt for anything outside of the city, had promptly replied with a downward spreading of his right hand, “Aw fu’git it!”

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