It was the night before Christmas, and as Jarm would remember it later, “though cold, it was as clear and beautiful as Tennessee sky could make it.”
He stood outside the slave cabin with his enslaver’s horse, a stolen saddle full of food and a forged travel pass. He sneaked inside briefly to kiss his sleeping mother on the forehead. For her own safety and his, she couldn’t know he was about to escape.
Thus began a weeks-long journey as Jarm and a friend traveled north to Canada and freedom. They encountered suspicious White people who physically attacked them and demanded to see their passes, and sympathetic White and Black people who fed them and their horses and guided them onto an Underground Railroad they didn’t even know existed.
Though their escape was harrowing, Jarm didn’t have to deal with perhaps the greatest threat in his bid for freedom: Jarm’s enslaver, Mannasseth Logue, who was also his biological father. Nor did he have to run from a slave-catching posse called by Logue. No posse had been called because Logue didn’t know Jarm was gone.
Christmas marks the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, claimed by Christians to be the son of God, but for enslaved African Americans, the holiday season also offered miracles of a more practical sort. It was the best time of year to escape.
There were a few reasons for this. It was often the only time of year enslaved people were given an extended break, according to the Documenting the American South project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. If they escaped at the beginning of the break, then their enslavers might not become aware of it for a week or more, when work began again and they didn’t show up, giving them a huge head start.
Plus, during their time off, many enslaved people were allowed to visit family at nearby plantations, an activity that required a “pass” from their enslavers permitting them to be on the road by themselves. If during their escape they were caught or questioned by Whites, they could use the pass to convince others to let them go.