Fixing the Ancestors’ Plate: Reconciling Trauma and Tradition at Christmas Dinner



I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like Christmas. The best word to describe my dislike is pressure: pressure to get good gifts, pressure to create a great menu, pressure to tolerate your family and probably a dozen other forms of pressure I haven’t listed. I also had the misfortune of losing my mother on Christmas Eve, so I am really not too keen on decking the halls this time of year.


When this time comes around, I often think, “How can Black folks better navigate trauma and tradition during the holidays?” For many, this can be a time when they’re subjected to cruel comments from family, faced with the presence of abusers, or reminded of the shared grief over a transitioned loved one. As someone that is passionate about food and the space it creates, I often think about how trauma and tradition affects our relationship with food. A person may engage in harmful eating habits, such as binge eating or food deprivation, in order to cope with the environment. While some of these eating habits are the body’s natural attempt to self-comfort, I believe some habits are also passed down. 


From my research and listening to family lore, I learned that our enslaved ancestors experienced both harm and healing during Christmas time. The period between Christmas and New Year was one of the few instances when enslaved Black people could actively practice rest and reflection. Many of them used this time to get married, plan escapes, and visit family on other plantations. Our ancestors also took this time to create their own traditions.


One specific tradition was jonkonnu or “John Canoe.” Multiple slave narratives recount tales of Black men dressing as masqueraded figures and leading the community via song and dance to the Big House where they would participate in “catching the Christmas gift.” It’s as messed up as it sounds, but it was a way for many enslaved people to receive rare foods and secure basic necessities. Children usually got candy or fruits, while adults received staples like molasses, lard, butter and flour. These goods also provided the opportunity for those enslaved to combine their resources and create a large holiday meal that could feed the entire community. 



For people enslaved by Catholic slaveholders on the Creole Coast, they likely participated in réveillon. Translating to “awakening,” réveillon is a holiday tradition where Creole families break their day-long Christmas Eve fast by having a lavish multi-course feast after midnight mass. Gumbo, roasted turkey, ham, candied yams and delectable sweets could all be served during these meals. Smaller plantations were also known to have sweet potato stuffed opossum (a personal favorite of my maternal grandfather). 


Christmas was a chance for millions of enslaved Black folks to gorge on food and celebrate with blood-related and fictive kin. This tradition was incredibly important considering they didn’t know when their next nutritious meal would come from. I can’t help but reflect on how this was all taking place under the watchful eye of an overseer. While the ancestors were able to create tradition from an atrocious situation, the foundation of this celebration is rooted in scarcity mindset. Though an act of love, it’s probably why our grandmothers and aunties overfeed us. Food scarcity was and continues to be an issue in our community. 


What’s even more unsettling to reflect on is the fact that many of our ancestors sat down for a meal that would likely be their last with their family. The top of the new year was a common time for selling enslaved people. To sit down for a meal and not know if your family will be separated next week is a horror that no one should have to experience. Cooking and eating, especially with loved ones, is a ritual that should be grounded in intention, love and joy. 



Compared to our ancestors, we as descendents have the opportunity to incorporate more healing than harm during the season. Part of that healing can manifest through how we engage with food. I don’t have all the answers, but here are some of the ways I use my relationship with food to find joy and groundedness during the season.


  1. When cooking, speak prayers of prosperity, love and abundance into the food.

  2. Have a snack/small meal while cooking or waiting for food.

  3. Enjoy and make room for all the food: there is no good or bad food. 

  4. Take breaks and check in with your hunger cues. 

  5. Use your senses: grounding yourself in the 5 senses can help avoid “autopilot” eating.

  6. Set boundaries with folks to minimize harmful situations.

  7. Make a plate for your ancestors and thank them for their love.

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