Posts Tagged 'Christmas'

Christmases Past: A Holiday Blog

By James Marten

It’s no coincidence that the most benign and popular of the three spirits who haunt Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve is the Ghost of Christmas Past. Although in the end Ebenezer’s journey through select moments of his holiday memories are more bitter than sweet, this first of three ghostly tours reminds us that the ways in which we and our families celebrate Christmas—or any holiday, really—create a shared history among family members that can become treasured memories or dramas fraught with ambivalence.

Part of that memory-making, at least for some of us, threads through popular culture, whether it’s the smooth jazz-infused A Charlie Brown Christmas, the jerky stop-motion animation of Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or the star-studded, over-the-top music specials that have flooded the airwaves since the 1950s (anyone remember David Bowie singing “Little Drummer Boy” with Bing Crosby?).

But three iconic representatives of the genre are grounded in history, and self-consciously reflected that history when they were made. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (actually published in 1843 as A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost-Story of Christmas), christmascarol1843_-_184has appeared in countless plays, cartoons, radio shows, and movies. Each version, in its own way, has captured conditions on Victorian England familiar to any historian: the class conflict reflected in the presence of the urban poor (the waifs revealed by the Ghost of Christmas Present), the barely-getting-by lower middle class represented by the Cratchits, the comfortable middle classes shopping and feasting throughout the story, and the wealthy folks who barely appear but are clearly present; the overburdened system of private charities and over-used work houses and prisons so loved by Scrooge; even the massive dislocation of the provincial population to London and its fabulous economic opportunities and worrisome dangers. Indeed, one of Dickens’ motivations for writing the little book was to offer not only a heart-warming holiday story, but to highlight the egregious conditions in which many Londoners lived.

Less concerned with societal ills than with individual redemption, It’s a Wonderful Life traces everyman George Bailey’s life from the 1910s through the 1940s, with major events like the World Wars and the Great Depression neatly framing the movie into three acts.  Smaller episodes reflect those times, from the druggist’s near-disastrous grief from losing wonderful-lifehis son during the WWI to the run on the Baileys’ building and loan in the early 1930s that ruins the George and Mary’s honeymoon, to the incredible energy poured into the war effort on the WWII home front.  Along the way we glimpse the effects of eastern European immigration and the development of the kind of the kind of suburban housing that would be made famous by the post-war Levittowns.  Every one of these and many other historical moments plays a role in the life George resents—and every one provides a specific kind of Christmas memory showing why his presence enriched the lives of others.

It’s a Wonderful Life appeared in 1946, as soldiers returned from war and adjusted to peace (like George’s hero brother Harry—a pilot like Jimmy Stewart, acting in his first movie since returning from several years of active duty) and as the country tried to glimpse a little optimism after the shattering destruction of the war. Eight years later, White Christmas came out at a time when, despite the Cold War, Americans felt more confident and the world was more or less at peace; filmed in living color and featuring peppy musical numbers, it occupies a place on the spectrum of Christmas movies about as far from It’s mmwhitechristmas02Wonderful Life as possible.  Yet even a bit of fluff like White Christmas is rooted in war-time and post-war America, from the GIs longing for home at the make-shift show put on by comrades just before they go into combat to the sudden rise to entertainment prominence of television to the bittersweet reunion of already aging veterans who gather to honor their old general after he’s been rejected by an army too modern to need an old-school soldier like him. Despite its modern sensibilities, White Christmas seems to have been produced to create nostalgia.

Whether these or other Christmas classics are on your must-see list, or if you simply watch a few minutes here and there while channel-surfing, for many of us these stories—and no doubt countless others—firmly meld fictional Christmases into real history and into our lives.

Happy Holidays on behalf of my colleagues in the Marquette University History Department!

James Marten is professor and chair of the history department.  He’s a little sheepish about admitting that one of his favorite holiday movies is Love Actually.





Politics and Christmas during the Civil War


By James Marten

A recent episode of the profane and hilarious (and also surprisingly respectful of history) television show “Drunk HistorNast 1y” featured Thomas Nast, the crusading Harper’s Weekly cartoonist. Historians know him for his efforts to bring down the corrupt “Boss Tweed” and his Tammany Hall machine in the early 1870, his cartoons attacking the Ku Klux Klan and the Democratic Party, and for any number of other political and reform-minded campaigns (some of his cartoons attacked the Catholic Church!).

Most Americans probably don’t recognize Nast’s name. But they are familiar with his most lasting creation: a drawing of Santa Claus made in 1881 that quickly became the most widely accepted version of the “jolly old elf.” It has appeared on countless postcards and posters since then; indeed, it is almost inseparable from the secularization—and, inevitably, the commercialization—of the holiday season.

But it was hardly the first time that Nast had portrayed Santa Claus for readers of Harper’s Weekly.

Almost two decades earlier, a year-and-a-half after the beginning of the Civil War, he had sketched his first version of Santa. Titled “Santa Claus in Camp,” it appeared in the January 3, 1863, issue. The Christmas season had not been a happy one in the North. Just two weeks earlier, the disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg had cost the Union nearly 1300 dead and 9600 wounded soldiers. Just after Christmas, nearly 1800 Union soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured at the ill-fated Battle of Chickasaw Bayou near Vicksburg, while Confederate raiders had threated Union positions in Kentucky and elsewhere. Just two days before the issue came out, the Union army barely won the Battle of Stone’s Creek in Tennessee, but 25,000 Confederate and Union soldiers became casualties—a third of the total number of men fighting. And to top it all off, the Republican Party, who controlled the Congress and the Presidency, was plagued with infighting, votes of no-confidence, and cabinet resignations.

Thomas Nast oNast 2ffered a pro-Union, optimistic antidote to the gloomy, bloody holiday. In addition to scenes of home front Christmases inside, the cover illustration showed Santa Claus receiving a hero’s welcome in a Union army camp. In addition to playing various games and cooking a sumptuous Christmas feast, the surprisingly chipper soldiers—“what,” they seem to be saying, “me worry?”—open the presents brought by Santa Claus, including socks and pipes; drummer boys play with a jack-in-the-box.

More importantly, unlike subsequent representations of Santa Claus, in which he is decidedly apolitical, this particular St. Nick is a determined ally of the Union. His costume features stars and stripes, and he’s entertaining the soldiers with a toy that is apparently an effigy of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. It seems to be a kind of jumping jack toy; pull the string on top and the legs and arms move as though he’s leaping and twirling. However, in this image, Santa is acting out a line from a popular bit of war-time doggerel set to a tune we now know as “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: “We’ll hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree!”

The war started to go better for the Union in 1863, of course, although hundreds of thousands more American men wNast 3ould be killed and maimed in the hard fighting that lasted until spring 1865. By then, Santa was doing what he did best—giving presents to children safely at home, far from war. (Although he would make similarly patriotic appearances in later wars; see the online exhibit at the World War II Museum here).

It’s unsettling for us to see just how easily a childhood fantasy can, in effect, be “weaponized” on behalf of a political ideal. But that’s what we historians do: complicate the ways in which we can see even the simplest—seemingly simple, at least—aspects of our culture.

Despite that, the History Department offers a fairly simple wish for the season: Happy Holidays!
For more on Thomas Nast and Santa Claus during the Civil War, see
You can watch the Nast “Drunk History” segment here:


James Marten is professor and chair of the history department. Among his books are The Children’s Civil War (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998) and Sing Not War: The Lives of Union and Confederate Veterans in Gilded Age America (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011).

Christmas on the Western Front, 1914

 As many of you know, this fall the History Department commemorated the centenary of the beginning of the First World War with a lecture series called “Legacies of the Great War. Watch the lectures online at

It’s fitting, then, that our traditional Christmas-time blog features the centennial of the famous “Christmas Truce” between German and Allied armies in 1914, the war’s first Yuletide. Mostly we’ll let an excellent British website provide most of the information. But first, Julius Ruff, who teaches a course on WWI and was co-organizer of the lecture series, provides a brief introduction (check out the website his class created featuring biographies of many WWI soldiers at  Merry Christmas, everyone.

Amid the carnage of the First World War, a conflict that claimed the lives of some 10,000,000 soldiers, a bizarre event spontaneously occurred on the Western Front in northern France at Christmas, 1914. On Christmas Eve, Allied soldiers noted the appearance of Christmas trees and the singing of Christmas carols in the trenches of the Germsoldiersan forces facing them. In plain defiance of military regulations forbidding fraternization with the enemy, Allied soldiers joined the German response to this most central observance of the Christian faith, and soon left their own lines to meet their enemies in the middle of the “no man’s land” that separated the opposing armies. On that killing field, up and down the front, war suddenly stopped, as the soldiers observed an unofficial truce to exchange Christmas greetings, holiday foods, and tobacco with their nominal enemies. In some sectors, the soldiers even played soccer. This cessation of hostilities endured through Christmas Day, 1914, before officers on both sides re-imposed traditional military regulations. The soldiers repeated one last, diminished celebration of this sort in 1915, before the belligerent forces resumed warfare that would continue uninterrupted until the Armistice of Nov. 11, 1918.

For descriptions, documents, news about centennial commemorations, and much more about the truce, go to “Operation Plum Puddings” at


Civil War Christmas

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 Christmas 1863Nast 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.

Continue reading ‘Civil War Christmas’

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 65 other followers