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Nast discussed his predicament with his sister Bertha, a New York City schoolteacher who was visiting at his house. The two reminisced about their early childhood holidays in their native Germany. The conversation inspired Nast. After his sister went home, he worked feverishly through the night.
The next morning, he delivered the finished drawings to the newspaper. The front page showed a wondrous holiday sight: Santa Claus, dressed in a patriotic Stars and Stripes outfit, visiting soldiers in camp to distribute Christmas gifts from his sleigh.
A soldier opens his Christmas box to find a fully loaded stocking, while a comrade behind him gets a meerschaum pipe. In the foreground, a sprung jack-in-the-box surprises two drummer boys. In the background, soldiers chase a greased pig while others climb a greased pole to reach a cash purse nailed to the top.
Some play football; others prepare company Christmas dinners. Lee back into the Union, Santa Claus and his sleigh and reindeer team appear in silhouette before a rising moon behind the word Christmas.
Nast, Winslow Homer, Alfred Waud, and some illustrators forgotten to history created visual chronicles of the spreading influence of many holiday traditions we enjoy today, including Santa Claus, Christmas trees, gift-giving, caroling, holiday feasting, and Christmas cards.
Homer and Nast drew scenes of the wartime practice of sending Christmas boxes filled with homemade clothes and food items to soldiers at the front. Christmas boxes like the ones Homer and Nast pictured gave their recipients a much-needed mental and physical boost. John Haley of the 17th Maine, for instance, was working with a road crew the day before Christmas. As his body toiled, his mind focused anxiously on a parcel he expected from home. We have become very childish in some matters—grub being one of them.
On returning to camp, I was informed by my tentmate that there was no parcel at the station bearing my name. My mental thermometer not only plummeted to below zero, it got right down off the nail and lay on the floor. Seeing this, my tentmate made haste to dive under the bed and produce the box, which he had brought from the station during my absence, and in a few minutes we were discussing the merits of its contents.
Most of the men have been remembered, and any that have not received something from home are allowed to share with their more fortunate neighbors. Again, a practical joke finds its way into the story: There came a carload of boxes for the prisoners about Christmas which after reasonable inspection, they were allowed to receive. My box contained more cause for merriment and speculation as to its contents than satisfaction.
It had received rough treatment on its way, and a bottle of catsup had broken and its contents very generally distributed through the box. Then, too, a friend had sent me in a package a bottle of old brandy. The bottle had been opened outside, the brandy taken and replaced with water, adroitly recorded, and sent in. I hope the Yankee who played that practical joke lived to repent it and was shot before the war ended. To be home for the holidays was the burning desire of every soldier.
And as Sergeant A. Small jotted in his diary, some men used every ounce of creativity they could muster to make their request for a holiday furlough persuasive: Applications for furloughs have been frequent of late, that Sergeant-Major Maxfield sent up his application, based on Deuteronomy, 20th chapter, seventh verse: Let him go and return unto his house, lest he die in battle and another man take her.
The most beloved symbol of the American family Christmas—the decorated Christmas tree—came into its own during the Civil War. Christmas trees had become popular in the decade before the war, and in the early s, many families were beginning to decorate them.
Illustrators working for the national weeklies helped popularize the practice by putting decorated table-top Christmas trees in their drawings.
It was only a matter of time before the Christmas tree made its way into military camps. Alfred Bellard of the 5th New Jersey remarked about the arrival of the newly popular Christmas icon to his camp along the lower Potomac River. Harrison of the 14th New Jersey described for his mother a holiday dinner he attended near Fredericksburg, Maryland, the day after Christmas I saw some nice ones in New York when I lived there but I saw none equal to that.
President Jefferson Davis himself hosted the party with his wife Varina, and their children. I never saw anything that looked so pretty to me. Varina Davis committed her memories of the affair to paper three decades later.
The orphans sat mute with astonishment until the opening hymn and prayer and the last Amen had been said, and they at a signal warily and slowly gathered around the tree to receive from a lovely young girl their allotted present. The President became so enthusiastic that he undertook to help in the distribution, but worked such wild confusion giving everything asked for into outstretched hands, that we called a halt, so he contented himself with unwinding one or two tots from a network of strung popcorn in which they had become entangled and taking off all the apples he could when unobserved, and presenting them to smaller children….
Those soldiers who could not come home for Christmas touched base with their loved ones through letter-writing. Lieutenant Robert Gould Shaw of the 2d Massachusetts Infantry before he became commander of the famous 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment penned a letter to his mother while on guard duty in Frederick, Maryland, on Christmas morning He recounted his holiday misadventure of trying to eat breakfast in the presence of the sleeping sergeant of the guard and proceeded with a tongue-in-cheek explanation for why he had not seen Santa Claus overnight: It began to snow about midnight, and I suppose no one had a better chance of seeing Santa Claus; but, as I had my stockings on, he probably thought it not worth his while to come down to the guard-tent.
He took some time to offer holiday and fatherly advice to his daughter at home in Pennsylvania: Well, When I was a little boy, a good many years ago, I was fond of such things myself. And when I look back, they were indeed the happiest days of my life.
The boys, I mean the two Willies, are getting too old for the enjoyment you can have. I wish you a Merry Christmas and many of them.
There is a lot of soldiers at my door giving me a serenade and I must give it some attention.
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Your affectionate Papa By , the Union blockade of the Southern coasts had made it nearly impossible for Santa Claus to visit homes in the South; scarcity of goods and the consequent high prices put both store-bought presents and raw materials for homemade gifts out of the financial reach of many Southern consumers.
Quite a few mothers explained to their children that even Santa Claus would not be able run the formidable blockade.
Ella Gertrude Clanton Thomas of Augusta, Georgia, told how a simple act of faith on the part of her children caused her to dig deeper for a holiday offering on Christmas Eve: Mary Bell has been told that Santa Claus has not been able to run the blockade and has gone to war—Yet at this late hour when I went upstairs Thursday night of the party I found that the trusting faith of childhood they had hung their little socks and stockings in case Santa Claus did come.
I had given the subject no thought whatever but invoking Santa Claus aid I was enabled when their little eyes opened to enjoy their pleasure to find cake and money in their socks—Jeff was delighted. Sallie Brock Putnam devoted some lines in her memoirs to Christmas in Richmond during the third year of the war. She plotted the course Santa Claus needed to follow to avoid the blockade to bring presents to Southern children and Christmas boxes to soldiers in the field: Another annual revolution in the cycle of time brought us again to the Christmas season, the third since the bloody circle of war had been drawn around our hearts and homes.
For days preceding the festival the anxious little ones, who had learned to share the cares and troubles of their elders, peered curiously into the countenances of mothers and fathers, for an intimation that good old Santa Klaus had not lost his bravery, and that despite the long continued storm of war he would make his way through the fleet at Charleston or the blockading squadron at Wilmington, and from foreign countries, or perchance across the country from Baltimore, he would pick his way, flank the numerous pickets on the lines, and bring something to drop in their new stockings, knitted by mother herself.
Sometimes the simple present that brought happiness to the child was purchased at the expense of some retrenchment in the table-fare for the week, or with the loss of some needed article of comfort in clothing.
But the influence of childhood is magical. The children find their way to our hearts, and unloose the purse-strings when all other inducements fail. Santa Klaus once more generously disposed of socks and scarfs and visors, to the husbands, brothers, sons, and lovers in the army. For the Confederate soldier away with the army at Christmas, there was no cure for the nearly incapacitating homesickness the holidays inspired. In a letter to his wife in , soldier Philip H.
Power found moving words for some of that lonely feeling: I do not care to celebrate Christmas until I can do so with my children—and my wife—when will that holiday come…? I hope the children enjoyed themselves yesterday—I thought of them when I first awaked, and their stockings—Fortunate for them they were in Richmond where something could be had from Santa Claus.
Santa Claus apparently had a much easier time visiting homes in the North than those in the South that Christmas. On Christmas Day the soldiers loaded several wagons full of food and other supplies and distributed the items about the ravaged Georgia countryside.
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That December brought the first peacetime Christmas in five years. Most soldiers had been mustered out of the military and were home to celebrate the holiday with their families. Of course, many others had never returned home. In the South, Christmas was being rediscovered after four years of deprivation. In the North, shops beckoned passersby with window displays full of tempting goods.
The last stanza especially captures the cheerful holiday mood and eagerness of the American people to put the turbulent conflict behind them: Bring holly, rich with berries red, And bring the sacred mistletoe; Fill high each glass, and let hearts With kindliest feelings flow; So sweet it seems at home once more To sit with those we hold most dear, And keep absence once again To keep the Merry Christmas here.