Christmas in the 1860’s

by James Durney on December 24, 2009 · 2 comments

ThomasNastCivilWarSantaChristmas during the Civil War is a very different holiday from what we know.  The holiday is not one of merriment and festivity in much of Britain and America.  This is a time of sobriety and somberness.  People attend church reflect on the birth of Christ and the blessings of God.  A large family dinner with small gifts follows church in most households.

Santa Claus is waiting for Thomas Nast to start drawing him and making him the popular figure we know.  Those drawings are not going to appear for another 20 years.  In place of Santa is St. Nicholas.  He is a somewhat questionable figure in America with an association to “Popish ceremonies” in many American minds.  “Twas the Night Before Christmas”, written in 1823, is titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas”.

Do not look for Christmas trees in many homes.  This is a “Dutch” custom and many German communities have a single tree.  Christmas trees are becoming popular but not fully accepted.  In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, are illustrated in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree.  The English are starting to follow the German custom.  They are modifying the decorations and hanging small toys the branches.  In most homes, with a tree, the gifts are on the table near the tree.

A Christmas Carol in Prose, Being a Ghost Story of Christmas by Charles Dickens first appeared in 1843 and is widely read.  This little book is making a change in the Christmas holiday with its’ emphasis on joy, family and merriment.

One of the best views of Christmas, in New England, is by Theodore Parker, Minister of the 28th Congregational Society of Boston.   His “Tale of Two Christmases” looks at some of the new celebrations taking hold in America.  Some think it “queer,” and wonder, “what our pious fathers would think of keeping Christmas in New England.” A few have “religious scruples,” and want nothing to do with the changes.  The head of the Know-nothing lodge said it was “a Furrin custom, and I want none o’ them things; but Ameriky must be ruled by ‘Mericans; and we’ll have no Disserlutions of the Union, and no Popish ceremonies like a Christmas Tree. If you begin so, you’ll have the Pope here next, and the fulfilment of the seventeenth chapter of Revelations.”


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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Phil Bales December 25, 2009 at 11:04 am

Magnicent writeup. Your blogs always are the most informative place to learn more about the Civil War era. Thanks for all of your research and unbiased factual presentations. In you number one fan!

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