After midnight, two nights before the fire and the murder, Joe Christmas is in bed, unable to sleep. Joe Brown stumbles into the cabin the two men share, drunk and laughing. Annoyed by the rowdiness, Christmas holds Brown still and hits him repeatedly. Brown casts racial slurs at Christmas but eventually quiets and settles into a deep sleep.
Christmas, still unable to sleep, focuses his anger on Miss Burden. He feels he can forgive the fact that she lied to him about her age, but he cannot excuse the fact that she prayed over him. As his anger gets the best of him, he curses Miss Burden and goes outside, wandering the darkened yard. He takes off his clothes and stands by the road; when a car goes by and a woman screams, he screams back at the car. Finally, he goes to the stable and manages to sleep there for two hours.
At seven o’clock in the morning, Christmas goes to a clearing, where he shaves, reads a magazine, and then unearths a cache of metal tins, pouring the whiskey they contain onto the ground. He then put the tins back where they were originally. That evening, he eats dinner in a restaurant, stares coldly at Brown being shaved at the barbershop, and wanders around town desperately. He eventually passes through the predominantly black part of town, then the white neighborhood, then the woods and trails outside of town. He confronts a group of blacks on the road and, after they leave, realizes that he is holding a razor in his open hand. He goes toward Miss Burden’s and sits in the yard in the dark. When he hears the clock strike twelve, he enters the house, thinking, Something is going to happen. Something is going to happen to me.
The action then shifts to when Joe Christmas is five years old. Living in an orphanage, he sneaks into the dietician’s room to steal some of her toothpaste. Suddenly, the dietician enters the room with a young male doctor, and Joe hides behind a curtain. The dietician and the man begin to make love, and Joe, sick from eating too much toothpaste, suddenly vomits loudly and is discovered. The angry dietician handles him roughly, hissing a racial slur at him in the process.
After the incident, the dietician becomes paranoid that the boy will tell the director of the facility what he saw. She tries to bribe him with a silver dollar to keep quiet, but he is too young to comprehend what has happened and does not accept the money. The dietician then approaches the orphanage janitor, who confirms her suspicion that the child is biracial. However, he refuses to help the dietician reveal that fact to matron, as it would result in the boy’s removal and transfer to an orphanage for black children.
Later, the janitor appears at the dietician’s door, asking her what she plans to do and whether she is going to reveal the boy’s parentage to the matron. When he realizes her intentions, the janitor disappears with the child, only to be taken into custody several days later in Little Rock. The child is returned to the orphanage and, with the dietician’s intervention, is quickly adopted by a stern, unemotional, devoutly religious farmer, Mr. McEachern. The matron tells McEachern that the nurses found the boy on Christmas Eve, but McEachern says that Christmas is a heathen name and that from now on, the young boy will be known as Joe McEachern.