NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

December 20, 2013

Christmas traditions shaped by the Civil War

Bill Hallett
Newburyport Daily News

---- — 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.

After the war, Thomas Nast placed Santa’s residence at the North Pole so that no one would use the portly saint for political propaganda as he had during the Civil War.

Americans had revived the tradition of caroling as new songs prior to the war became popular: “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “We Three Kings,” and “Up On The Housetop.”

After his son had joined the Union cause and was severely wounded, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem about Christmas and war that years later would be set to music: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Soldiers looked to find ways to enjoy Christmas. Often games of sport were planned, small Christmas trees were decorated with hardtack and other soldiers’ items, and if lucky enough, they might get some special dinner. Still, many had to perform guard duty and other necessary soldierly tasks.

Newburyporter Cyrus T. Goodwin of the 59th Massachusetts wrote from City Point, Virginia on Christmas 1864, “For Christmas we had turkey, preserved peaches and apples.” He added, “We are going to have oysters for dinner to day.”

“It is rumored that there are sundry boxes and mysterious parcels over at Stoneman’s Station directed to us. We retire to sleep with feelings akin to those of children expecting Santa Claus,” John Haley, 17th Maine.

In some cases the day went by without much notice. Newburyport’s Thomas E. Cutter of the 35th Massachusetts only noted in his diary that it was cloudy in Knoxville on Christmas 1862.

Some stories of sailors tell of music on board ships as the crew danced a jig and the captain was generous enough to dispense an extra ration of grog.

Whether a soldier or sailor, most men were homesick this time of year more than other days. Christmas always seemed to represent home.

On Christmas night in 1861, Newburyport’s home front had a celebration hosted by a temperance group. The evening featured ice cream, coffee, and tea. Dancing, recitations, a vocalist and an original poem were to be read. Music was by the Dyer & Carter’s Quadrille Band. A Christmas tree was erected for the occasion.

A year later in 1862, City Hall held a Christmas Fair for the Soldiers’ Relief Society. This year it seemed more important to raise money to help the soldiers. The Newburyport Daily Herald stated, “The women of Newburyport have acted nobly in this humane work.”

General Sherman captured Atlanta in the fall of 1864, then initiated his march to the sea. This ended with his capture of Savannah just days before Christmas. He sent a message to Lincoln: “To his Excellency, President Lincoln: I beg to present you as a Christmas gift the City of Savannah, 150 guns and plenty of ammunition: also about twenty-five thousand bales of cotton.”

In 1870, in one of many efforts to help unify the country, former general, now President Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas a Federal holiday, setting the Christmas tree and Santa Claus firmly in place.

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Bill Hallett is a Newburyport resident and the author of the recently-published book “Newburyport and the Civil War.”