How the Civil War Helped Make Christmas a Permanent American Tradition

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Dec. 23 2013 1:00 PM

How the Civil War Helped Make Christmas a Permanent American Tradition

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Christmas is a creature of the 19th century, so the advent of the Civil War found Americans in the throes of Victorian sentimental enthusiasm for Father Christmas, gift-giving, and candlelit trees. In her book Christmas in America: A History, historian Penne Restad argues that the war, which scattered families and brought grief to many, made Americans cling to Christmas even more: “Northerners and southerners, civilians and soldiers alike attempted to recreate in it the peace and well-being that eluded the nation.” 

Engravers and chromolithographers, whose work ran in magazines like Harpers’ Weekly and was sold cheaply for home display, explicitly addressed themes of wartime Christmas separation. Some popular art, such as this Thomas Nast engraving titled “Christmas Eve,” emphasized the pain of distance. In two circular insets, a wife looks out the window mournfully, at prayer while her children sleep; her soldier husband studies a book of photographs, his rifle against his shoulder, bayonet fixed. The two insets are set against a background depicting a graveyard and a battlefield.

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Thomas Nast was perhaps the most famous artist to marry Christmas and the Civil War [PDF], but other commercial artists of lesser distinction followed suit. This large engraving, by popular Boston publisher Louis Prang & Company, opts for a more positive, universal vision of Christmas spirit across the land. The overflowing frame holds domestic scenes of boys and girls in bed, a tabletop Christmas tree “within” the house and a sleigh-ride “without,” and a smiling Santa Claus holding a steaming figgy pudding and what might be a bowl of warm punch.  

The soldiers in camp, in the center inset illustration, are joyful enough, partaking in food, drink, and merriment. Prang’s anonymous illustrator must have borrowed heavily in this depiction from the more famous Winslow Homer engraving of a soldiers' Christmas in camp published on the cover of Harpers’ in January, 1862—though, to be sure, Homer’s soldiers are far wilder in their enjoyment of their Christmas boxes.

I found this print, which is in the collections of the Boston Public Library, using the great search tools of the Digital Public Library of America.

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L. Prang & Co., ca. 1862. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library's Print Department.

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