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Published December 19, 2018

How The Civil War Shaped Today’s Christmas

Christmas is the time-honored celebration of centuries, a holiday cherished in modern times as a blend of religious and secular customs. Families and friends gather for merriment and the traditions of gift-giving, while many commemorate the deeply religious component – the birth of Christ.

But the traditions of Christmas in America is little more than 100 years old, as the holiday was once banned by the English Puritans who settled in the New World. The merrymaking and festivities we recognize today were considered sinful during a period of religious reform in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where stricter religious rituals were favored. Parliament of England officially banned Christmas in 1644 and this remained in place until the ban was lifted in 1660 under the rule of King Charles II.

Even so, Christmas was not celebrated and was even still banned in parts of America for decades until the holiday found a religious revival in the mid-1800s. People gradually embraced the holiday in their own ways. When Louisiana officially recognized Christmas as a holiday in 1830, other states followed, making the holiday wide-spread and fashionable again. The once solemn occasion took on the form of the familiar traditions we know and celebrate today – dancing at parties and gatherings, singing Christmas carols, sending Christmas cards, feasting and drinking together at the Christmas meal, and decorating the requisite Christmas tree.

A Major War Changes Everything

In the midst of this Christmas holiday revival came a pivotal war that dramatically changed everything. The American Civil War, a defining period in history that deeply divided the nation between 1861 and 1865, was so consequential and resulted in the death of more than 600,000 soldiers and civilians – a significant number of casualties equal to about 6 million today.

“It is Christmas morning and I hope a happy and merry one for you all, though it looks so stormy for our poor country, one can hardly be in merry humor.”
Robert Gould Shaw, 2nd Massachusetts Infantry, 1861

While a somber mood took over the nation during these arduous years, a happy spot came in the form of the widely celebrated holiday, Christmas. The sentimental customs of the holiday emerged from a private one to a more public one as part of a social response during this wearisome and confusing era. It helped ease the fears and suffering of homesick soldiers, if only briefly, sometimes even unifying the men across the divide. It allowed men to find a bit of comfort on the cold battlefields and help women at home, giving their children a sense of happiness among the heartache. For many, it was firmly believed the war would be over by Christmas.

The Christmas Traditions

Though the Civil War altered how both the United States and the Confederate States of America observed these traditions, it also bolstered a desire to celebrate the holiday and the torn nation needed it with each year the war continued. Of course, the economies of either side played a significant role that impacted and shaped how families and soldiers celebrated, with the South generally struggling compared to the industrial North’s thriving economy.

Children in the South were warned that Santa was a Yankee and might not make it across battle lines while children of the North received sparse, homemade gifts or fruit while wealthier families enjoyed the fancier gifts of wine, purses, books, and furniture.

Many homes did not have Christmas trees as it was a luxury to have one during the war and so, community trees were more common. Homemade decorations included popcorn strings, pine cones, colored paper, silver foil, and ribbons. Stockings, candles, mistletoe, holly, and greenery were popular decorations that adorned the home.

The iconic images of Santa Clause emerged, attributed to the artist, Thomas Nast, a Union supporter and newspaper cartoonist who published his drawings in Harper’s Weekly. His images displayed the popular jolly, white-bearded Santa giving out gifts and of his home in the North Pole. Fellow artist, Winslow Homer’s depictions of soldiers celebrating the festivities were also published, helping to boost morale among troops.

Celebrating the Christmas Spirit

In the first year of the war, President Abraham Lincoln celebrated Christmas with a party in the White House. But as the war continued, Lincoln instead spent the following years visiting injured soldiers in hospitals while his wife and First Lady, Mary Todd Lincoln, helped raised money for Christmas dinners. Their son, Tad, even provided gifts to the soldiers he met while visiting with his father.

“Please send me a bottle of brandy and some sugar and I will make an eggnog for Christmas if I can manage to get some eggs.” Henry M. Wagstaff, Confederate Solider of North Carolina, 1863

On the front line, separated by miles away from the comforts of home, soldiers managed to find ways to celebrate the Christmas cheer. Those who were lucky received gifts from their families, a small reminder of the yuletide. During the Christmas season, soldiers enjoyed eating and drinking and decorating trees inside their tents with hard-tack and salt-pork. They gathered around campfires and sang carols and wrote letters to loved ones to stave off the loneliness and homesickness.

Christmas dinner was often dependent upon rationed foods and drink or what was supplied by volunteers and supporters. Some soldiers were lucky to celebrate and dine on roasted turkey, or duck, or geese and stuffing, while those on the coastal regions enjoyed crab and seafood and fresh oysters. Out in the Midwest, pork or ham was the typical selection for the festive meal. Sadly, many soldiers were unfortunate and were not able to enjoy meals like this, while others were outright forbidden to celebrate the festivities at all.

Nurses and doctors working in the hospitals provided the wounded with rare treats, such as egg nog and pies. Some even provided meats, such as turkey, chicken, or pork, or oysters to make oyster stew and vegetables and corn bread for a complete meal. The scarcity of sugar and butter during the war made them valuable ingredients and so they were carefully reserved for special occasions only, especially for Christmas.

On the home front, women faced hardships, taking on many of the roles of their absent husbands and sons. As part of war efforts, they also made clothing for the soldiers or assisted in hospitals with the sick and wounded. They helped prepare foods for the Christmas holiday and sent gifts in boxes to loved ones.

Slaves even enjoyed a small measure of relief and liberty from the harsh routines of daily life on plantations and farms. They were allowed to participate in dances, parties, and other forms of entertainment, like wrestling and boxing. Though it may have seemed generous, the minuscule freedom offered to slaves by their masters was hardly a nostalgic time as they were still enslaved. Some were threatened with no Christmas celebrations if they misbehaved.

The Gifts of Christmas

The most famous gift noted of the Civil War was from General William Tecumseh Sherman in December 1864. Sherman’s March to the Sea was a persistent campaign into Georgia where his Union forces ventured deep into enemy territory without any supply lines. They marched from Atlanta to the port of Savannah between November 15 and December 21, using a scorched earth policy to cripple the Confederacy’s military and infrastructure.

“Many, many, thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah.” A. Lincoln, 1864

On December 22, 1864, Sherman saw the capture of Savannah, Georgia. He sent a telegram announcing the celebratory capture, which arrived to President Lincoln on Christmas Eve, who responded back with a thank-you letter to Sherman for his Christmas gift. It was a considerable achievement and one that helped usher the weakening Confederacy toward eventual surrender. It was also hoped by many to be the final conflict of the war.

On a smaller scale, children’s gifts at home were a rare treat that consisted primarily of handmade toys. Other gifts were simply fruits, candy, popcorn, and cakes. However, many unfortunate children did not receive gifts of any kind.

The End of a War

The civil war ended by 1865 but its lasting effects of those four, strenuous years are still felt today. The nation slowly healed and repaired itself with commerce steadily growing healthy again and society dealt with the ramifications of a separated nation. Many of the Christmas traditions and customs marked during the war not only made the holiday important, it established the modern-day observations of the holiday in America today.

President Ulysses S. Grant officially declared Christmas a national holiday in 1870 and it remains a holiday that continues to evolve as world cultures experience it and influence it. But, it is a holiday that, without a doubt, allowed a tattered nation to embrace its much needed days of peace and solace.

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  • Dylan Ward

    Dylan

  • Dylan Ward is a writer and storyteller and lives in North Carolina. He is a husband, father and avid lover of coffee. He often ponders the plight of the world and thrives in creative writing. His work includes short stories, screenplays, essays and reviews. All my articles.

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