Although many Americans, especially the Puritans who founded New England, had rejected rowdy European-style Christmas celebrations, that began to change in the nineteenth century, when the holiday evolved into a family-centered, wholesome celebration of the birth of Jesus. By the time of the Civil War, many of the traditions that modern Americans associate with Christmas had been established in the United States, including decorating Christmas trees, giving gifts (including the increasingly available commercially produced toys and children’s books), and anticipating the arrival of the Saint Nicholas or, as he was increasingly called, Santa Claus. Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (better known as “The Night Before Christmas”) had appeared in 1823. By the 1850s, observers were complaining of the commercialization of Christmas, as newspapers ran countless ads for Christmas sales of toys, food treats, and virtually every other imaginable item. The practice of sending Christmas cards and of spending every increasing amounts of money on lavish gifts would grow with the American middle class after the war ended—Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870—but Christmas celebrations would be familiar to modern Americans by the time the war began. An excellent history of the ways that Americans have celebrated Christmas is Penne Restad, Christmas in America.
But the Civil War changed Christmas for countless children and parents. When I wrote The Children’s Civil War a number of years ago, I came across a number of references to war-time Christmases in autobiographies of Americans who had grown up during the war, in children’s magazines, and in the popular illustrated weekly magazines. Indeed, this was the period during which the prolific political cartoonist Thomas Nast was fine-tuning the modern image of a rotund, jolly, red-clad Santa in the 1860s. Nast’s “Christmas 1863” offering in Harper’s Weekly integrated traditional scenes of Christmas–Santa delivering presents, children delighting in their gifts—into the facts of war-time, in this case, a father returning home on furlough from the army. [Harper’s Weekly, December 26, 1863.]
Inevitably, the war affected Christmas celebrations differently in the North and South. As Union army incursions, a deteriorating economy, and the blockade tightened belts throughout the Confederacy, Christmas gifts and feasts became ever sparser. A North Carolina mother reported that she and her husband gave their children mountains of dolls and books and games in 1862, but a year later, with Santa Claus “gone to the war,” they could manage to put a few cakes and coins in their stockings, while in 1864, her only mention of a “dull, gloomy, and cloudy” Christmas day was attending church. Some parents suggested to their children that, because he was, of course, a Yankee, Santa would be held up by Confederate pickets, or that, perhaps, Union blockading vessels had interrupted his journey. Others took less care in explaining the absence of a normal Christmas. The Richmond Examiner played Scrooge when it called Santa Claus “a dutch toy-monger, an immigrant from England, a transflated scrub into New York and New England,” who “has no more to do with genuine Virginia hospitality and Christmas merry makings than a Hottentot.” A slave told a family of children Georgia not to expect a visit from St. Nick because the Yankees had shot him.
But patriotic Confederates made do. One Richmond family made scarcity into a virtue. Although inflation had caused the price of flour and fruits to skyrocket, the Jones family splurged on pies and cakes that Mrs. Jones made as well as a few scrawny remnants from their vegetable cellar. According to the diary kept by the father of the family—an employee in the Confederate government—the Joneses had sworn that “no unpleasant word” would mar the day. No presents were forthcoming, either, but the parents and children spent the afternoon happily rummaging through an old chest containing clothes, toys from the mother’s childhood and other long-forgotten items. The large family seemed “content with this Christmas diversion,” the father of the family claimed, and “oblivious to the calamities which have befallen the country.”
Although hard times also came to many northern families—especially those with fathers and older sons absent—most could celebrate Christmas in the traditional ways. Yet, at least in a short story published in the popular children’s magazine Our Young Folks, the war could inspire northerners to a deeper understanding of Christmas. “The Two Christmas Evenings” was written by Lydia Maria Child, who was a life-long abolitionist and writer for children who years before the war had edited The Juvenile Miscellany, an early magazine for children. Appearing just after the war in Our Young Folks, an outstanding “juvenile” magazine, as they were called, that ran from 1865-1873, “The Two Christmas Evenings” covered a year in the life of the Rich family—their name was an unsubtle reference to their affluence—between two war-time Christmases. In the first, the perfectly nice and polite but rather spoiled Rich children open their many, many presents with an ennui that anyone who despairs at the commercialism of 21st century Christmases would recognize. One boy wonders why an uncle had sent The Arabian Nights when he already had a copy; a daughter notices that the gold bracelet given her by a cousin seems cheaper than the one she had sent the cousin last year. They politely open “beaded nets for the hair, books, photographs, bronze doze, Parian images, and all sorts of things,” but set them aside after glancing at them with little enthusiasm. Even the gift of a gutta-percha (an early kind of rubber) watch chain made by their cousin, Captain George, while recovering from his wounds in a hospital, fails to impress the son, who complains matter-of-factlly that he would rather have received a gold one. The kids simply have received too many presents over the years to appreciate these; the new jewelry and toys and books inspire déjà vu rather than gratitude.
Their father—with the wisdom typical of stories for children in the nineteenth century—sets his children down the next evening and asks them what their favorite part of Christmas had been. He knows what their answer will be: it was the pleasure he and their mother had taken in the handmade gifts the children had made: a purse, a red, white, and blue scarf, a hand-turned set of chessmen. “I thought so,” he says, and proceeds to tell them, “I learned long ago that it is not the having things, but the doing things, which makes people happy.” The children ponder and reflect on this–and almost immediately begin to plan for the next Christmas. They decide to ask their extended family not to exchange gifts, but rather to use the money to make dolls and buy books and toys for the children at a nearby Orphans’ Asylum. They spend months planning and rehearsing a “tableau” of Europe, America, African, and Asia, with each child creating an elaborate costume representing the people of their chosen continent, to be performed on Christmas Eve, when they would hold a fair—a miniature version of the grand “Sanitary Fairs” held in the North during the Civil War to raise money for medical supplies for Union soldiers—to raise money for the orphans. When Christmas finally comes, they also perform songs, play games, give patriotic speeches, and serve ice cream. They take in so much money that they spend half of it on picture books for the little freed-children Captain George, their cousin, had met in the South. Lessons are learned, good deeds are done, and the children come to understand Christmas and themselves a little better. (Click here to read “The Two Christmas Evenings.”)
Child was, of course, not simply showing how children could contribute to the war effort in some small way. She was warning against thoughtless gift-giving and receiving, which erodes the spirit of Christmas and violates the innocence of childhood. Here’s hoping you find in Christmas 2012–also taking place in wartime, however distant that war seems–a spirit that enriches your lives and brings contentment to your families.
On behalf of my colleagues in Marquette’s history department: Happy Holidays!
Jim is professor and department chair whose most recent book is Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America.