Langston Hughes’s “One Christmas Eve”
December 19, 2018
With an introduction by Bettye Collier-Thomas
“One Christmas Eve” was published in Opportunity in December 1933. The editor noted, “Langston Hughes, just returned from a lengthy stay in Russia, turns his hand to the short story and shows a growing mastery of that medium.” Prior to going to the Soviet Union in 1932, Hughes, at the insistence of the noted educator Mary McLeod Bethune, travelled throughout the South reading to mainly black audiences. Listening to the stories of black Southerners, and personally experiencing segregation and discrimination at every turn, Hughes became inspired to write this story.
In 1930, the majority of African American women were employed as domestics. In many small Southern towns, such as the one described here by Hughes, educated and uneducated African American women and men had few economic opportunities. As late as 1990, the majority of black women, many without formal education, were employed mostly in service positions and agriculture. Teaching and preaching were the primary professional employments open to educated blacks. Arcie, the central character of this story, personifies the plight of some black servants and of many African American women who worked to support their families as domestics. A single woman with a young child, Arcie works long hours for meager wages, which barely support her basic needs. Yet, with all her problems, she yearns to provide her child with a “normal” Christmas.
Hughes demonstrates Arcie’s efforts to make Christmas a happy occasion for Joe, her four-year-old son, and employs the Christmas theme to illustrate the vast economic gap between whites and blacks, and the lack of concern evidenced by some whites about the lives of their servants. Hughes examines the meaning of Santa Claus for black children, especially boys.
Hughes’s Santa Claus does not see Joe simply as a child who, like all children, idolizes Santa and believes in his goodness. For Santa Claus, Joe is just a Negro, a reviled figure to be made fun of, an animal without humanity, and a beast of burden to be used. Like all children who gravitate toward Santa Claus, Joe sees no reason why he should not enter the lobby of a segregated movie theatre where Santa is dispensing gifts and good cheer.
Because of the particular vulnerability of black males to lynching and other racial attacks, Hughes used black boys to demonstrate the problem black parents faced in trying to provide a “normal” childhood for their children, while at the same time educating them about what it meant to be black in America. The dilemma that African American parents, particularly Southern blacks, confronted each December was how to celebrate and embrace America’s definition of Christmas and Santa Claus, and at the same time protect their children from the dangers posed by racism, inherent in every aspect of United States culture—even Christmas.
—Bettye Collier-Thomas, from A Treasury of African-American Christmas Stories
Standing over the hot stove cooking supper, the colored maid, Arcie, was very tired. Between meals today, she had cleaned the whole house for the white family she worked for, getting ready for Christmas tomorrow. Now her back ached and her head felt faint from sheer fatigue. Well, she would be off in a little while, if only the Missus and her children would come on home to dinner. They were out shopping for more things for the tree which stood all ready, tinsel-hung and lovely in the living room, waiting for its candles to be lighted.
Arcie wished she could afford a tree for Joe. He’d never had one yet, and it’s nice to have such things when you’re little. Joe was ﬁve, going on six. Arcie, looking at the roast in the white folks’ oven, wondered how much she could afford to spend tonight on toys for Joe. She only got seven dollars a week, and four of that went for her room and the landlady’s daily looking after Joe while Arcie was at work.
“Lord, it’s more’n a notion raisin’ a child,” she thought.
She looked at the clock on the kitchen table. After seven. What made white folks so inconsiderate, she wondered. Why didn’t they come on home here to supper? They knew she wanted to get off before all the stores closed. She wouldn’t have time to buy Joe nothin’ if they didn’t hurry. And her landlady probably wanting to go out and shop, too, and not be bothered with little Joe.
“Doggone it!” Arcie said to herself. “If I just had my money, I might leave the supper on the stove for ’em. I just got to get to the stores fo’ they close.” But she hadn’t been paid for the week yet. The Missus had promised to pay her Christmas Eve, a day or so ahead of time.
Arcie heard a door slam and talking and laughter in the front of the house. She went in and saw the Missus and her kids shaking snow off their coats.
“Umm-m! It’s swell for Christmas Eve,” one of the kids said to Arcie. “It’s snowin’ like the deuce, and mother came near driving through a stop light. Can’t hardly see for the snow. It’s swell!”
“Supper’s ready,” Arcie said. She was thinking how her shoes weren’t very good for walking in snow.
It seemed like the white folks took as long as they could to eat that evening. While Arcie was washing dishes, the Missus came out with her money.
“Arcie,” the Missus said, “I’m so sorry, but would you mind if I just gave you ﬁve dollars tonight? The children have made me run short of change, buying presents and all.”
“I’d like to have seven,” Arcie said. “I needs it.”
“Well, I just haven’t got seven,” the Missus said. “I didn’t know you’d want all your money before the end of the week, anyhow. I just haven’t got it to spare.”
Arcie took five. Coming out of the hot kitchen, she wrapped up as well as she could and hurried by the house where she roomed to get little Joe. At least he could look at the Christmas trees in the windows downtown.
The landlady, a big light yellow woman, was in a bad humor. She said to Arcie, “I thought you was comin’ home early and get this child. I guess you know I want to go out, too, once in a while.”
Arcie didn’t say anything, for if she had, she knew the landlady would probably throw it up to her that she wasn’t getting paid to look after a child both night and day.
“Come on, Joe,” Arcie said to her son, “Let’s us go in the street.”
“I hears they got a Santa Claus down town,” Joe said, wriggling into his worn little coat. “I want to see him.”
“Don’t know ’bout that,” his mother said, “But hurry up and get your rubbers on. Stores’ll be closed directly.”
It was six or eight blocks downtown. They trudged along through the falling snow, both of them a little cold. But the snow was pretty!
The main street was hung with bright red and blue lights. In front of the City Hall there was a Christmas tree—but it didn’t have no presents on it, only lights. In the store windows there were lots of toys—for sale.
Joe kept on saying, “Mama, I want. . . .”
But mama kept walking ahead. It was nearly ten, when the stores were due to close, and Arcie wanted to get Joe some cheap gloves and something to keep him warm, as well as a toy or two. She thought she might come across a rummage sale where they had children’s clothes. And in the ten-cent store, she could get some toys.
“O-oo! Lookee. . . . ,” little Joe kept saying, and pointing at things in the windows. How warm and pretty the lights were, and the shops, and the electric signs through the snow.
It took Arcie more than a dollar to get Joe’s mittens and things he needed. In the A&P Arcie bought a big box of hard candies for 49 cents. And then she guided Joe through the crowd on the street until they came to the dime store. Near the ten-cent store they passed a moving picture theatre. Joe said he wanted to go in and see the movies.
Arcie said, “Ump-un! No, child. This ain’t Baltimore where they have shows for colored, too. In these here small towns, they don’t let colored folks in. We can’t go in there.”
“Oh,” said little Joe.
In the ten-cent store, there was an awful crowd. Arcie told Joe to stand outside and wait for her. Keeping hold of him in the crowded store would be a job. Besides she didn’t want him to see what toys she was buying. They were to be a surprise from Santa Claus tomorrow.
Little Joe stood outside the ten-cent store in the light, and the snow, and people passing. Gee, Christmas was pretty. All tinsel and stars and cotton. And Santa Claus a-coming from somewhere, dropping things in stockings. And all the people in the streets were carrying things, and the kids looked happy.
But Joe soon got tired of just standing and thinking and waiting in front of the ten-cent store. There were so many things to look at in the other windows. He moved along up the block a little, and then a little more, walking and looking. In fact, he moved until he came to the picture show.
In the lobby of the moving picture show, behind the plate glass doors, it was all warm and glowing and awful pretty. Joe stood looking in, and as he looked his eyes began to make out, in there blazing beneath holly and colored streamers and the electric stars of the lobby, a marvelous Christmas tree. A group of children and grownups, white, of course, were standing around a big man in red beside the tree. Or was it a man? Little Joe’s eyes opened wide. No, it was not a man at all. It was Santa Claus!
Little Joe pushed open one of the glass doors and ran into the lobby of the white moving picture show. Little Joe went right through the crowd and up to where he could get a good look at Santa Claus. And Santa Claus was giving away gifts, little presents for children, little boxes of animal crackers and stick-candy canes. And behind him on the tree was a big sign, (which little Joe didn’t know how to read). It said, to those who understood, Merry Christmas from Santa Claus to our young patrons. Around the lobby, other signs said, When you come out of the show stop with your children and see our Santa Claus. And another announced, Gem Theatre makes its customers happy—see our Santa.
And there was Santa Claus in a red suit and a white beard all sprinkled with tinsel snow. Around him were rattles and drums and rocking horses which he was not giving away. But the signs on them said (could little Joe have read) that they would be presented from the stage on Christmas Day to the holders of lucky numbers. Tonight, Santa Claus was only giving away candy, and stick-candy canes, and animal crackers to the kids.
Joe would have liked terribly to have a stick-candy cane. He came a little closer to Santa Claus. He was right in the front of the crowd. And then Santa Claus saw Joe.
Why is it that lots of white people always grin when they see a Negro child? Santa Claus grinned. Everybody else grinned, too, looking at little black Joe—who had no business in the lobby of a white theatre. Then Santa Claus stooped down and slyly picked up one of his lucky number rattles, a great big loud tin-pan rattle like they use in cabarets. And he shook it ﬁercely right at Joe. That was funny. The white people laughed, kids and all. But little Joe didn’t laugh. He was scared. To the shaking of the big rattle, he turned and ﬂed out of the warm lobby of the theatre, out into the street where the snow was and the people. Frightened by laughter, he had begun to cry. He went looking for his mama. In his heart he never thought Santa Claus shook great rattles at children like that—and then laughed.
In the crowd on the street he went the wrong way. He couldn’t ﬁnd the ten-cent store or his mother. There were too many people, all white people, moving like white shadows in the snow, a world of white people.
It seemed to Joe an awfully long time till he suddenly saw Arcie, dark and worried-looking, cut across the side-walk through the passing crowd and grab him. Although her arms were full of packages, she still managed with one free hand to shake him until his teeth rattled.
“Why didn’t you stand there where I left you?” Arcie demanded loudly. “Tired as I am, I got to run all over the streets in the night lookin’ for you. I’m a great mind to wear you out.”
When little Joe got his breath back, on the way home, he told his mama he had been in the moving picture show.
“But Santa Claus didn’t give me nothin’,” Joe said tearfully. “He made a big noise at me and I runned out.”
“Serves you right,” said Arcie, trudging through the snow. “You had no business in there. I told you to stay where I left you.”
“But I seed Santa Claus in there,” little Joe said, “so I went in.”
“Huh! That wasn’t no Santa Claus,” Arcie explained. “If it was, he wouldn’t a-treated you like that. That’s a theatre for white folks— I told you once—and he’s just a old white man.”
“Oh. . . . ,” said little Joe.
About Bettye Collier-Thomas
Bettye Collier-Thomas is professor of American history at Temple University. Her scholarship includes American social and cultural history, African American women’s history, religion, civil rights, and electoral politics. Dr. Collier-Thomas is the author of numerous award-winning books. Her most recent, Jesus, Jobs, and Justice: African American Women and Religion, was reviewed and cited in the New York Times as an Editor’s Choice, won a National Women’s Political Caucus’s EMMA award for excellence in elevating the civil discourse on issues affecting women, and received awards from the Organization of American Historians and the Association of Black Women Historians. Her previous award-winning books include Sisters in the Struggle: African American Women in the Civil Rights–Black Power Movement (as coeditor) and Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons. She has received multiple fellowships and grants from the Lilly Endowment, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Humanities Center, and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.