Civil War years shaped our view of Christmas

During the Civil War, artist Thomas Nast first gave us the image of Santa Claus (left) as we know him today – a jolly, portly man in a red fur-trimmed suit delivering toys from a North Pole location. Nast’s illustration – from an 1863 edition of Harper’s Weekly – had a clear political message, too. The  text accompanying the drawing says: “Santa Claus is entertaining the soldiers by showing them [Confederate President] Jeff Davis’s future. He is tying a cord pretty tightly round his neck, and Jeff Davis seems to be kicking very much at such a fate.”

The Civil War saw soldiers on both sides of the conflict spending the Christmas seasons of 1861, 1862, 1863 and 1864 far away from their loved ones in winter encampments at places they more than likely never heard of previously.

How did they handle those four holidays?

It’s important to remember that some of the holiday traditions predated the Civil War. People in all parts of the country had already been exchanging Christmas gifts, decorating Christmas trees and singing Christmas carols. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” had been published in 1843 and was quite popular.

During the war, the German-speaking artist Thomas Nast stepped forward and unknowingly pushed the holiday season to higher levels. It was Nast, a professional newspaper illustrator for the Harpers Weekly newspaper starting in 1862, who standardized our image of a jolly, portly man in a red fur-trimmed suit delivering toys from a North Pole location in illustrations – the man we have referred to ever since as Santa Claus.

Soldiers from both sides recorded holiday events that are reminiscent of traditions we still have today. A soldier from the Fifth New Jersey wrote home to describe a small tree decorated outside his tent with tack and pork, cakes and oranges.

The soldier went on to describe his thoughts that when he went to bed on the evening of Dec. 24, he would more than likely have “feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus.”

Families in the South were disappointed in the Christmas season their children would have because the Union blockade was keeping shipments from reaching them. Some of those parents had to tell their children that Santa Claus might not make it to them until the war had ended.  

A lady in Richmond, Va., expressed her thoughts on the situation by saying “Never before had so sad a Christmas dawned upon us … we had neither the heart nor inclination to make the week merry with joyousness when such a sad calamity hovered over us.”

Confederate soldier William Gordon McCabe wrote of his impression of Christmas night in 1862 in his diary: “Dim forms go flitting through the gloom, the soldiers cluster round the blaze, to talk of other Christmas days, and softly speak of home and home … my thoughts go wandering to and fro, vibrating ‘twixt the Now and Then; I see the low-browed home again, the old hall wreathed in mistletoe.”

On Christmas 1862, it was reported that Union and Confederate soldiers sang Christmas carols as they camped across from each other a night before a bloody battle.

A soldier from the 18th Mississippi wrote home and said this about the season: “You have no idea how lonesome I feel this day … in a few hours they will be astir – the children crazy over their stockings. Were I there, I’d fill them up to the brim with bon-bons. I’d make them think for one day that plenty abounded, that no war existed, and that each was a King or Queen.”

Robert Gould Shaw, who commanded the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, wrote in his diary: “It is Christmas morning and I hope a happy and merry one for all of you, though it looks so stormy for our poor country, one can hardly be in merry humor.”

A Union encampment in the South on Christmas Day reportedly tied tree branches to the heads of their horses to make them look like Santa’s reindeer.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Dec. 25, 1863. Longfellow’s words, later made into a song, were inspired by his despair in learning that his firstborn, Charles, had been wounded in a battle of New Hope Church, Va., several weeks before. The young man was in serious condition in the hospital.  

Longfellow’s line in the poem, “There is no peace on earth, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill to men,” reflects his personal desperation.

But at the end of the poem Longfellow says: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln received a rather unusual Christmas gift – when Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman captured the city of Savannah, Ga., on Dec. 21. The military achievement was seen as the beginning of the end of the war.

Sherman sent Lincoln a telegram that read: “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 100 and 50 guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

In Richmond that same Christmas, the people of the town worked together, scrambling at the last minute to make sure youngsters from a local Episcopalian orphanage received the Christmas tree, toys and candy they had been promised.

Years after the war’s end, Christmas was officially designated a federal holiday in 1870, during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, the famed Union Army commander. Grant thought the new holiday would help reunite the North and the South.

– Charles Town resident Bob O’Connor is the host of a Civil War podcast and the award-winning author of more than a dozen fiction and non-fiction books. Learn more about him and his offerings at boboconnorbooks.com

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