James Thomas was well-acquainted with powerful white southerners, intimate even. He was born in 1827 to an enslaved woman and John Catron, a justice of the supreme courts of the United States and Tennessee. During his childhood in Nashville, Thomas worked as an assistant to John Esselman, one of the most successful physicians in the city. Later, he became the personal assistant to Andrew Jackson Polk, a cousin of President James K. Polk and the owner of more than three hundred enslaved people.
Thomas used those connections to his advantage. As a barber, a practice that he began while enslaved and which he continued after gaining legal freedom in 1851, Thomas earned as much as $100 a month from a clientele that included William Giles Harding, the owner of the Belle Meade plantation and one of the wealthiest men in Nashville. It was from Harding and similar clients that Thomas gained not only a considerable income but also an understanding of what Christmas meant to them.
To antebellum white southerners, Christmas was a time of merriment—and fear.