Tuesday, December 21, 2010

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.