, Newburyport, MA


December 20, 2013

Christmas traditions shaped by the Civil War

As the year winds down, it’s interesting to see how much the vortex of the Civil War altered and shaped our Christmas traditions and customs.

The South celebrated Christmas since colonial days, but Puritanical New England didn’t begin until the early 1800s as new immigrants from Europe began arriving.

The Christmas tree may have origins to the Roman Empire, but we acknowledge the Germans for its popularity. The first American Christmas trees were likely in Pennsylvania.

In a mid- 19th century English magazine, there appeared a sketch of Queen Victoria and her German husband, Prince Albert. The image was of them with their family around a Christmas tree. This brought the acceptance of the tree into homes in England and also the United States.

Eleanor Custis Lee, a great-great-grand daughter of Martha Washington, described in 1853 how her family had a Christmas tree on a table at West Point. It was an exciting event for the young girl. Her father, Robert E. Lee, was the superintendent of the prestigious military school.

German immigrant Thomas Nast, a skilled artist, created many political cartoons for Harper’s Weekly. Eventually his talent would take aim at New York’s politics. Nast is also credited with the elephant image for the Republican Party.

Among his lasting images is the American image of Santa Claus. Nast put Santa on a sleigh handing out packages to Union soldiers in Civil War camp for the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s. It was the first of many Nast Santas.

St. Nicholas or Santa goes back centuries. But Nast created the American Santa. That image would remain unchanged until 1931 when Coca Cola created a 20th century Santa.

Southern children were told Santa might not make it through the Union blockade. This reinforced the evil image of the Yankee. One little girl attempted to chart the best way for Santa to avoid the Yankees.

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