Christmas wasn’t an official holiday until President Ulysses S. Grant proclaimed it in 1870, attempting to unite the north and the south. During the Civil War, Christmas was celebrated in both the United States and the Confederate States of America.
By the time the American Civil War began, the whole concept of Christmas and the majority of our present-day Christmas customs and traditions were already established, including decorating Christmas trees, giving gifts and anticipating the arrival of the Saint Nicholas.
During this period of the American history, when the country was divided by conflicting ideologies, Christmas was an especially difficult time for soldiers and maybe even more difficult for their families left at home.
During the Civil War soldiers celebrated Christmas erecting small evergreen trees decorating them with hard-tack and salt-pork and singing carols. Some of them would dress their horses up like reindeer by attaching branches to their headgear.
On the first Christmas Day during the war, President Lincoln and his family celebrated Christmas by holding a Christmas party at the White House. In 1862 and 1863 he visited injured soldiers in various hospitals. On one occasion President Lincoln even took his son Tod with him to see the injured soldiers. Apparently, Tod Lincoln was so moved by the plight of Union soldiers that he sent gifts to wounded soldiers he had met during the holiday hospital visits. The gifts were mostly books and clothing.
The most famous Christmas gift of the war was sent by a telegram from William Tecumseh Sherman to Abraham Lincoln on December 22nd, 1864. “I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 100 and 50 guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton”. This marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War.
During the Civil War, Christmas was altered for children since presents were seldom, especially in the devastated South. At that time gifts were more necessity than luxury so the children would usually get homemade gifts, small hand-carved toys, cakes, oranges or apples.
Southern parents warned their children that Santa might not make it through the blockade. Many Southern children were told that “Santa was a Yankee” so Confederate pickets would not let Santa through. Excuses for the lack of Santa went so far that even included Yankees who had shot him.
Although many of the Christmas traditions had been established before the Civil War,during the Civil War, Christmas traditions were changed for countless children and parents.
We have another story on Civil War: Mathew Brady’s portraits of notable people from the American Civil War
Christmas was joyful and yet, for many people and especially children, it was very sad at the same time.