Christmas During the Civil War

Over the past few days I’ve been reading about the history of Christmas in America. (For a brief introduction on the subject, I suggest you read the preface of William B. Wait’s book, The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving). It has been most surprising for me to discover that Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated until about the mid-19th century. I didn’t realize that the celebration of Christmas was such a recent phenomenon in American history. Of course, I already guessed that the Puritans didn’t celebrate Christmas, so I wasn’t surprised to learn that the holiday was outlawed between 1659 and 1681. But it appears that Americans still resisted Christmas in the 18th century, partially because it was a way for rebellious American patriots to set themselves apart from an English/European tradition.

In the 19th century, Christmas began to be celebrated more regularly. I’ve been particularly interested in different historical arguments regarding how Americans perceived Christmas during the Civil War (1861-1865). For example, Penne L. Restad argues that around the time of the Civil War, Americans looked toward the Christmas holiday as an “idealized domestic haven that was neither northern nor southern in its origins or biases.”1

On the other hand, it has also been argued that Americans also were divided on the subject of Christmas. Southerners tended to celebrate the Christmas as part of the social season, whereas Northerners saw more sin in the celebration of the holiday.2 Although these two arguments by historians seem a little contradictory, I think that they can coexist. Perhaps the idea of Christmas both unified Americans (with its promise of peace and tranquility) and also divided Americans (in the way that the holiday should be observed).

The division of Civil War era Americans regarding Christmas is especially interesting to me when considering Thomas Nast’s drawings for Harper’s Magazine. Nast made several images of Santa Claus during the 1860s, including a picture of Santa delivering presents to Union soldiers (see image above, which is from the January 3, 1863 cover of Harper’s Magazine).  Some argue that this drawing functioned as a type of psychological warfare against the Confederate Army, since Santa Claus was showing favor to Union soldiers (when Southerners were the ones who tended to celebrate the Christmas holiday).

I think that the drawing is particularly interesting. Santa is dressed in a suit with stripes and stars, which looks very similar to the Union flag. He is handing out gifts which would have been important to soldiers, such as a pair of socks. Interestingly, Santa is holding out a puppet that looks very much like Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate South. Santa is pulling on the puppet string, which makes it look like Santa is lynching Jefferson Davis! (Who knew that Santa could be so violent?) I think that the inclusion of lynching is an especially interesting comment on anti-slavery, don’t you think?

It’s interesting to think about how Christmas is a cultural construct, especially within a relatively young country like America. If you live outside the United States, what is the history of Christmas in your country? Are you aware of early representations of Christmas in your respective country or area? Or, if you are American, what representations of Christmas do you like?

1 Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 98. Citation is available online here.

2 Although not within the Civil War context, William B. Wait also discusses how the Northerners were suspicious of the Christmas revelry, whereas the Southerners embraced the celebration. See William B. Wait, The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving (New York: New York University Press, 1994), xv-xvi. Citation is available online here.

  • AdmGln says:

    Interesting post, as always. Merry Christmas!

  • Dr. F says:

    Clement Moore's, "Night Before Christmas" must have played an important role in America before the Civil War.

    Merry Christmas,

    Frank

  • Hels says:

    Good stuff. And yes, Christmas is a cultural construct. Everything is – the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the homes we build, the religions we practise, the animals we love as pets and not as dinner!

    But the connection with war is even more interesting. How can you have a celebration of peace and love when the government is forcing young men to slaughter others?

    In World War One, British and Australian troops came out of their trenches every Christmas Day and Boxing Day, swapped Christmas biscuits with the enemy soldiers, and taught them how to play cricket!!! They were forced by their commanders back into the trenches on the 27th of Dec, to start the slaughter up again.

  • heidenkind says:

    That illustration is really interesting! Makes me wonder how Christmas displays/images comment on our current war, if they do at all?

  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting post M! My experience of Christmas has always been as a spectator.

    When I was a kid I used to get a lot of sad looks from adults and kids who assumed I used to 'miss out on Christmas' not bothering to ask whether I happened to have any celebrations within my own culture.

    These days, my partner's family celebrates Christmas and I tag along to that. I can see how the kids love it, but I'm not that fussed myself. If anything, I'm glad when it's over.

    A normal day is a special day for me, a special day is a normal day…if that makes sense.

    H

  • Christopher says:

    Fantastic post! I taught a lesson in EQ last Sunday on "Christmas Love", and a huge part of the setup involved the history of Christmas. I've been doing a lot of research this month on this question as well. If we see each other over Christmas, I'd love to swap historical anecdotes. :)

    One point here: in defense of the Puritans banning Christmas, what doesn't get said much is why: Christmas had become an excuse to slough off moral conventions and common decency. It involved excessive drinking and sex: it was basically Mardi Gras. It was also common to use the holiday as an excuse to riot and assault–in every sense of the word–authorities: for example, in Britain students would bar the doors to their classroom and arm themselves with clubs, stones, and swords; if the teacher got in, he'd beat them mercilessly; but the students would defend themselves, even if it meant harming their teacher. Civic authorities faced similar riots, and there were injuries and even frequent deaths. It's understandable the Puritans banned traditions that led to these kinds of activities. And, of course, they only banned the secular aspects of Christmas devotion: they still held religious services, albeit minimalistic.

    One other interesting tidbit: L. Frank Baum was a pioneer in creating and developing the concept of "window shopping"! He was a window dresser, and he helped promote the more commercial aspects of Christmas after the Civil War, which is when the department stores really started to market Christmas as we know it. It's interesting to read articles from Victorian Britain and mid-nineteenth century America that pine for the good old days of Christmas when it was both rustic and religious, not the hollow commercial holiday it had become … not much has changed in 150 years!

    Also, Clement Moore's poem and Dickens "A Christmas Carol" were outrageously influential in establishing what Christmas "should" be.

    (Sorry for the uber-long comment.)

  • Jaime says:

    Loved this post! Really fascinating…

  • e says:

    Very interesting (but that's the norm for your blogs)!

    I like early Santa Claus figures — I like to look at the different styles especially in clothes, so I thought it was neat about how this Santa was dressed.

    Similar (but not really) to Christmas, I've always had a big interest in Hanukkah (but that probably goes without saying …).

  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! I hope you all have a happy holiday season (whether you celebrate Christmas or not!).

    Christopher, you had some really interesting things to add to the discussion. I knew that L. Frank Baum was a window dresser (I loved reading the Oz books growing up, and recently read a biography on Baum), but I never had connected his profession to Christmas. That's interesting!

    Hels, thanks for sharing that story about the British and Australian troops. It's touching to see how a celebration of peace can help change the face of war, if only for a day.

    heidenkind: Good question! I'd be interested to see if anyone knows anything about images that comment on the current war.

    Frank, I bet that Clement Moore's "Night Before Christmas" did have an important role in America. Thanks for bringing up that point.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.