Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Christmas During The Civil War

A slave told a family of children Georgia not to expect a visit from St. Nick because the Yankees had shot him.

From Marquette’s History Department: 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.
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,”

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.  (source: http://marquettehistorians.wordpress.com/tag/civil-war/)

1 comment:

  1. So interesting. Thank you.

    S. Thomas Summers
    Author of Private Hercules McGraw: Poems of the American Civil War

    ReplyDelete

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