A Civil War Christmas
What Was Christmas Like during the Civil War?
In researching my Civil War ancestor, I wondered what Christmas was like for the soldiers in their winter camps and for their families back home without them. I searched a number of sources, including some diaries by soldiers.
Here's what I've found about Civil War Christmas time.
I hope it answers any questions you had about what Christmas was like in the 1860s during the War Between the States. If not, then leave your question in the guestbook and I will research it further.
Christmas in the 1860s
In this family both parents are there, but during the war, many families would be without a father at home. The trumpet and drum are typical gifts of that time. The rocking horse indicates a fairly affluent family. One child has a toy sword and there's a figure of a toy soldier on horseback as well. In the lower part of the picture are alphabet blocks and a small Christmas tree. One child has its hand in a stocking. Other gifts in the illustration include a doll, a storybook, and a sled.
You will also notice that the family has seven children. In this era, families were quite large though some of the children did not survive to become adults.
Decorating the Christmas Tree in 1863
This description is from a story in the Urbana Union, 30 December 1863, page 1.
They placed a large baize covering over the center of the floor and tacked it down. Then a large stone jar (like a crock) was put in the middle with the tree placed in it. Damp sand was packed around the base of the tree. the crock was covered with a flounce of green chintz.
Long strings of bright red holly berries, threaded like beads upon fine cord were festooned in graceful garlands from the boughs of the tree. Tiny tapers (candles) had long pieces of fine wire passed through them at the bottom. Then these were twisted around each branch and twisted together underneath. "Great care was taken that there should be a clear space above each wick, that nothing might catch fire." The father rubbed a small drop of alcohol on each wick so that it would light easily. He used great care that none dripped on any part of the tree which would cause a fire hazard.
"Strings of bright berries, small bouquets of paper flowers, strings of beads, tiny flags of gay ribbons, stars and shields of gilt paper, lace bags filled with colored candies, knots of bright ribbons, all home-made by the family made a brilliant show at a very trifling cost."
Gifts such as dolls were seated on the boughs, and there was a huge cart for the little boy with two horses prancing. On the moss that covered the sand in the crock, they placed a set of wooden animals. "Various mysterious packages wrapped in paper and marked with the children's names were put aside."
"Eager voices shouted 'Merry Christmas,' as the little ones followed their older sister into the front parlor. It was entirely dark. Standing them in a row, at some distance from the folding doors. The doors flew open. The tall tree, one blaze of light, covered with tasty gifts, stood in the middle of the room"
You Can Buy Similar Toys Today
Toys like the ones given to children in the 1860s for Christmas gifts. These could be store bought in the 1860s or you could make your own sled, set of blocks and wooden rocking horse yourself. Reproductions of such toys are still being made.
What Were the War Years Like for Children?
- A Child's Life during the Civil War
What was life like for children during the American Civil War? Learn about their clothing, their toys and games and other details of life at that time.
A Carved Wooden Horse
Popular Toys of the Time
The Evansville Daily Journal (Indiana) advertised that every imaginable kind of toys (tin, wood, iron, and dolls of all sizes and kinds) were available from the merchants. Dolls came in wax, china, paper, linen, and wood. There were machine toys like steamboats, Monitors, engines, and carriages.
Also available were India rubber toys, rocking and spring horses, wagons, carts, sleighs, velocipedes, and children's cabs. Some of those sound unfamiliar to us today.
A velocipede was an early version of a bicycle or tricycle. Paper dolls could be fashion dolls to cut out and play with, but there were also paper soldiers to appeal to little boys.
With so many men gone into the armies, toys relating to military themes were popular, like a tin drum. The Monitor mentioned in the newspaper advertisement would have been a metal toy replica of the Monitor created by the military.
Many items are still popular today like the game badminton. In the 1860s, it was called battledore and shuttlecock.
A Civil War Christmas (YouTube Video)
My Civil War Ancestor Had a Little Daughter
Laura Ann Tower was almost 3 years old when her father enlisted in Company G, 93rd Indiana Volunteer Infantry. The war would continue on and three Christmases would pass before the little girl saw her father again.
Perhaps she wanted a china head doll like the one shown below. More likely her mother made her a rag doll for that Christmas.
Here's a Vintage Doll Like a Child in the 1860s Might Have
Christmas Customs from the 1860s
- Decorating with greenery - The family would go out to cut boughs of pine, get cuttings from holly trees, find some laurel and bring it home. The greenery was the chief decoration, on mantles, wrapped around stair rails, and a bunch hung on your front door with a ribbon. In the south, mistletoe was gathered from trees.
- Going from house to house singing carols.
- Gifts placed on the Christmas tree unwrapped.
- Lighting of the candles on the tree on Christmas Eve. They were in tin holders clipped to the branches and due to the risk of fire, were only on for a brief time.
Christmas During the War Years
Find out more about Christmas during the years 1861-1864, by checking out the items in the library and the Web sites listed here. What Was Christmas Like During the Civil War? | Librarypoint
God Rest Ye Merry, Soldiers: A True Civil War Christmas Story by James McIvor - This tells of a harmonious moment shortly after Christmas between the troops gathered for the Battle of Stone's River.
A Civil War Christmas by John C Rigdon - This short book (52 pages) uses letters, diaries, and other information to show what Christmas was like during the years of the conflict.
A China Tea Set for a Child
Hark the Herald Angels Sing Was a Popular Christmas Song During the War Years
- Civil War Lyrics Hark! The Herald Angels Sing | Civil War Music
Civil War Lyrics to Hark The Herald Angels Sing - The original words to this favorite Christmas carol were published in 1739 as “Hymn for Christmas-Day” but changed for the war.
A Homemade Checker Board
More Civil War Christmas Gifts - Kaleidoscope
Sewing a New Dress for a Child Might Be Their Christmas Present
Selections from the musical "A Civil War Christmas" - Watch these YouTube videos to learn more about Christmas during the Civil War
I'd love to see this musical performed in a theater.
Trailer for A Civil War Christmas
A Civil War Christmas - theater clip
Santa Looked Different in the 1860s - Thomas Nast Drawings of Santa
- Thomas Nast Christmas Cartoons
Thomas Nast is today best known for his political cartoons, but in his time he was also well known for his yearly cartoons starring Santa Claus. Many of these date back to the Civil War era. His later illustrations show a jolly fat Santa.
Yes, There Was a Santa Claus in the 1860s
I found a Harper's Weekly print called "The Wonders of Santa Claus" from 1857.
This gives you some idea of how the legend of Santa Claus was developing in the mid-1800s. Christmas was not even a national holiday at the time though it was a popular celebration across the country. It was in 1870 that it was established as an official U.S. holiday.
Read an 1861 Newspaper Online about Christmas for the Soldiers
- Civil War Christmas this has Winslow Homer's 1861 Harper's Weekly cover illustration of a Civil War Christmas and Christmas in Camp.
Links to Information about Christmas in Civil War Times
- Civil War Christmas - Thomas Nast Illustration
This site features a Thomas Nast Illustation known as "Civil War Christmas", a famous Civil War Picture A Soldier's Christmas - Greeting Card by bontondesigns
- Civil War Christmas - Winslow Homers illustration of troops at Christmas
You found It! Winslow Homer's 1861 Harper's Weekly Cover Illustration of a Civil War Christmast, Christmas in Camp
- Christmas in Camp; Confederate
Confederate Christmas in Camp Printed inside: "May all that you dream of come home to you this Christmas." Cards are printed on ivory linen card stock measuring 6 7/8" x 5" when folded, and come with matching ivory linen envelopes.
- Holiday Tour of the Shriver House - decorated for 1860s Christmas
The house is a museum in Gettysburg, PA
- The American Civil War Started Some Christmas Customs
Many of today's American Christmas customs had their beginnings in the early nineteenth Century but many of these customs ironically did not reach their maturity until during the civil war with all the violence, loss of life, and chaos.
- Civil War Christmas Traditions | Video | C-SPAN.org
1/2 hour video of a program on Civil War Christmas Traditions and the development of the customs. Held at the Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia
Soldier's Diaries and Letters for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day - during the Civil War
This gives you a first-hand account of what Christmas was like for the Union and Confederate soldiers in camp on the holidays.
I found a description by a soldier who was in Company G, 93rd Indiana Infantry with my great-great grandfather. Isadore Naviax's pension application described the activity of the regiment for Christmas 1862, saying that they marched from Holly Spring, Mississippi to Grand Junction, Tennessee. It was very rainy and bad weather, so Isadore became ill from exposure and measles. Obviously, these soldiers did not have a pleasant Christmas.
- A Civil War Christmas - Words of the Soldiers - Excerpts from Civil War soldier's diaries and letters that mention how they celebrated Christmas.
- Civil War Diaries Digital Collection - Iowa Digital Library - The University of Iowa Libraries - Lot Abraham's diary, December 24 and 25,1864 It sounds like the soldiers spent a pleasant Christmas Eve celebrating.
- Civil War Diaries - Iowa Digital Library - The University of Iowa Libraries - William Titus Rigby journal, December 23, 24, & 25th, 1863 The troops were moving on rail cars and didn't seem to have any Christmas celebration.
- Christmas Past: A Civil War Sampler - This includes a great selection of soldiers' diaries and letters telling about their Christmas Day.
1864 Christmas for the Army - Newspaper Clipping
Transcription of the Newspaper Clipping
Christmas in the Army
To-morrow the Almanac designates as Christmas, but in the army, it will bear a very striking likeness to every other day. The hospitals, indeed, will have turkey bought with their funds. Some commissary will doubtless disappear in honor of the day. Some head-quarters will be decorated, and others will have dinner parties, but to the mass of the army, Christmas will be simply Sunday, December 25th.
General Grant probably designs, or others for him, some sort of observance of the day, for his dining-room was being festooned to-day with evergreen, and, in addition to that, some very passable impromptu Christmas trees were being manufactured.
What We Learned from This
People decorated with swags of evergreen and put up Christmas trees, or in the army, an approximation of a Christmas tree. Festive meals were prepared and shared. Turkey was part of the traditional feast, but not likely to be available to the average soldier. When the article says "some commissary will doubtless disappear," I'm guessing it means soldiers or staff will help themselves to provisions from the commissary without permission.
1864 - Civil War Christmas on DVD
How the Army of the Potomac Celebrated Christmas in 1864
Transcription of the Clipping
The Observance of Christmas in the Army
Christmas day was universally observed throughout the Army of the Potomac, but no unusual demonstrations were made. There were receptions at headquarters of many of the corps, divisions, and brigades, and in the afternoon a hurdle race was run near the residence of John M. Botts.
The various hospitals were bountifully supplied with turkeys. fresh mutton, and vegetables. Many an invalid soldier has occasion to commend the thoughtfulness of Dr. Letterman, who furnished the material for a sumptuous Christmas dinner.
Extra rations of whiskey were issued to the men, by whom it was generally used with discretion. The weather was cloudy and very cold.
Sometimes a Soldier Would Make It Home for Christmas - This sketch depicts such an event in the Civil War
Look how joyful the family is to have their soldier home for Christmas. The wife embraces her husband, while a youngster clings to his father's leg. Grandparents watch from the doorway.
During the winter the troops would set up winter camps. You can see an example of one in the Civil War Museum in Petersburg, Virginia. It was too difficult to move the troops around and hold battles during the winter.
Scenes and Music Depicting the Civil War and Christmas
The first video, a clip from a documentary about Thomas Nast, is a very enjoyable story. I'd like to see the whole show. The clip is just a minute and a half.
The second video shows a southern Christmas as a slave tries to escape.
The third video is a reading from a Civil War soldier's diary.
The fourth video is a southern Christmas about the troops.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Virginia Allain