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Back by Popular Demand - Civil War Holiday Traditions North and South

The Smithsonian Associates Civil War E-Mail Newsletter, Volume 8, Number 7

It hasn't escaped the attention of many that the traditions associated with holiday celebrations in the United States today began during the Civil War. Without a doubt, it was the loneliness and insecurities of war that prompted citizens and soldiers alike to re-create the solace and comfort of the homes they left behind. They did this by re-establishing familiar European traditions, thus creating the illusion of love and peace at a time when very little of that existed in their daily lives.

Christmas had been celebrated in Europe with eating, drinking, and dancing. It was the Puritans who attempted to end this indulgent behavior, and did it successfully when they came to America. With their arrival, Christmas became a serious occasion, the purpose of which was to introspectively ponder sin and religious commitment.

It took almost 200 years for our country to move away from this Puritan ethic and enjoy the holidays once more. Louisiana was the first state to make Christmas a holiday in 1830, and many states soon followed. Congress did not make Christmas a federal holiday until 1870. The religious revival of the mid 19th century also added to the desire to unite, celebrate, and recognize Christmas.

Christmas cards, carols, special foods, holding winter dances, all date back to the late 1850s. During the Civil War, it was common to cut down fir and pine trees and take them into the home. They usually were tabletop size and often arranged with other greenery and mistletoe, all supposed to bring good luck to the household. Union soldiers’ letters mention decorating their camp Christmas trees with salt-pork and hard tack.

It was the development of the modern Santa Claus that embedded Christmas into the American way of life. In 1861, Thomas Nast was a German immigrant working as a writer and artist at Harper’s Weekly. When he was tasked to provide a drawing to accompany Clement Clark Moore's 1821 poem, T'was the Night Before Christmas, he called upon his Bavarian childhood to create our modern image of Santa Claus. His cherubic Santa--thin by today’s standards--was depicted bringing gifts of Harper's to the soldiers, making Nast the first to combine imagery (Santa Claus) and commercialism (selling Harper’s) into the American marketplace.

Santa brought children gifts and gifts were always home-made. Children were satisfied to receive just small hand-carved toys, cakes, oranges or apples. Many Southern diaries tell the story of Santa running the blockaded ports in Dixie to fill children's stockings with what little the parents could spare to make the day special for them. Even General Sherman's soldiers played Santa to impoverished Southern children by attaching tree-branch antlers to their horses and bringing food to the starving families in the war-ravaged Georgia countryside.

The most famous Christmas gift of the war was sent by telegram from William Tecumseh Sherman to Abraham Lincoln on December 22, 1864. "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." The gift, of course, wasn't the guns, the ammunition or the cotton, but the beginning of the end of the Civil War.