, Newburyport, MA


December 20, 2013

Christmas traditions shaped by the Civil War


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.

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