Celebrate the Gullah way



These days, Christmas seems to arrive as early as September, with store shelves filled with toys, holiday décor and other gifts. Holiday movies air on the Hallmark Channel before the arrival of Halloween.

Decades ago, Christmas truly came just once a year for the families living in the Lowcountry’s Gullah communities, and many native islanders are trying to hang onto the days when the holidays were a special time for children and families.

“Christmas was always a big celebration for our people,” said Louise Cohen, who was born and raised on Hilton Head Island and is renowned Gullah storyteller.

Gullah Christmas3Dancing, horse races, visiting family and friends, and enjoying food and spirits were among the festivities Cohen and others remember from that time. The Gullah Museum of Hilton Head, which Cohen founded, will celebrate some of these Christmas traditions Dec. 8 during the museum’s second annual Gullah Soul Christmas event at Northridge Plaza.

The event will feature a Lowcountry feast served buffet style, as well as a band and the nationally acclaimed McIntosh County Shouters from Georgia, who will perform a ring shout: a vibrant dance with hand-clapping, stick-thumping and singing or chanting. The 300-year-old tradition was common in Gullah communities and was part of the Christmas celebrations Cohen remembers.

As a young girl, Cohen and her siblings and young cousins were not allowed in the company of elders, especially when the shout was performed.

“The dance was done on a wooden floor and, oh my gosh, there was something about that shout. So much so that you wanted to see what they were doing,” Cohen said, recalling how she would peek at her mother, father and other relatives as they danced. She and her siblings practiced the shout on their own, based on their hidden glances at the adults, and today Cohen performs ring shouts as part of her cultural presentations.

Gullah Christmas2Nell Hay, a native islander who serves on the board of the Gullah Museum, and Gullah historian Emory Campbell both recall treasuring the gifts they received as children during the holidays.

“We would get an apple, an orange, a couple of nuts and a piece of hard candy,” Hay said. “We were grateful for that.”

Fruits like apples, oranges, grapes and bananas were considered exotic, and Christmas often was the only time Gullah families would have them, Campebell said. Relatives from up north would visit and bring other small gifts, but it was their presence that was the best gift, he said.

Campbell said people spent months preparing for the Christmas holiday. In the spring, Christmas turkeys began hatching and they were raised and sold at markets in Savannah. People organized the Christmas Savings Club and collected cash so they would have money for the holiday. Blackberries, mulberries and plums were harvested to make wines. Families preserved fruits and vegetables that were later used to make Christmas meals.

While today Christmas is still a celebration, it isn’t quite the same as what Campbell, Cohen and Hay remember from their childhoods on Hilton Head. They and other members of the Gullah community are trying to share their memories of these traditions so they aren’t lost forever. Campbell has dedicated a chapter in his book “Gullah Cultural Legacies” to Christmas on Hilton Head.

“In order for our culture to be passed on, we have to preserve it,” said Cohen, who has taught some of her grandchildren how to do ring shouts. She and Hay said they both share stories with their children and others so they know about Christmas traditions. Through those stories and events like the Gullah Soul Christmas, Hay said she hopes people gain an appreciation for how Christmas was celebrated many years ago.

Watch Night

It’s not just Christmas that is marked by special traditions observed by Gullah families.  New Year’s Eve—a time of revelry across the country—has special significance to those who observe Watch Night.

Watch Night services take place in churches, and as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, the Rev. Edward Alston will stand before the congregation at Queen Chapel AME Church on Beach City Road to read the Emancipation Proclamation. 

The reading is part of Watch Night, which signifies the arrival of the New Year, and is part of an initiative by the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission to observe the original reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and the intent behind it.

“It is part of our history as a race,” said Alston, who is helping the commission celebrate the 155th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, when enslaved people in the Lowcountry, the Sea Islands and throughout the United States were freed from bondage.

 The commission is encouraging churches of all faiths in Gullah-Geechee communities along the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida to incorporate the reading of the proclamation during Watch Night services or to sponsor Watch Night and Emancipation Day celebrations on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1.

“For a long time after the end of slavery, Gullah-Geechee communities would gather on Jan. 1 in churches and praise houses for the purpose of having the elderly explain to young people what Jan. 1 meant to them,” said Dr. J. Herman Blake, former executive director of the commission. In fact, he said, the communities didn’t call the day New Year’s Day.

“It was called Emancipation Day because that was the day (the Emancipation Proclamation) became effective,” he said.

Blake said one of the first Emancipation Day celebrations was in the Port Royal area near the old Smith Plantation, which is now the location of Naval Hospital Beaufort. A historical marker erected at the site designates this historical occurrence.

Over time, most of the celebrations faded away. But the commission decided to revive them as part of its efforts to help people understand and appreciate the Gullah-Geechee culture. Alston, who has been the pastor of Queen Chapel for 22 years, said this year will be the first the Emancipation Proclamation has been read in its entirety at Queen Chapel AME Church.

“In the past, I just focused on the importance of the proclamation and how it tied in with our overall history,” he said. Reading the document, Alston said, will help emphasize its importance both educationally and historically for current and future generations.

“Ultimately, by coming together to celebrate Watch Night and Emancipation Day from a Gullah-Geechee perspective, participants will learn priceless and powerful lessons about the human experience and how to transcend and transform our differences,” according to organizers of the initiative.

To learn more about the initiative, go to gullahgeecheecooridor.org.


Experience a true Gullah holiday celebration on Dec. 8 at Gullah Soul Christmas, presented by the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head. The event, to be held at Northridge Plaza, will include a buffet of Lowcountry favorites, an open bar, live music and a ring shout performance by the McIntosh County Shouters.

Tickets are $35 a person, $65 a couple and $600 a table. For reservations or more information, call Nell Hay at 843-298-2395 or Louise Cohen at 843-681-3254.