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A Civil War Christmas

In researching my Civil War ancestor, I became fascinated by all aspects of that war. If you're a Civil War buff, check out my topics.

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

An 1860s Christmas

An 1860s Christmas

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.

A modest Christmas tree from the Civil War era.

A modest Christmas tree from the Civil War era.

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

A toy from a store or one carved by a family member. This one is a pull toy, but horses also were made into rocking horses to ride on.

A toy from a store or one carved by a family member. This one is a pull toy, but horses also were made into rocking horses to ride on.

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.

Scroll to Continue

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

This doll is in the Bryant House in Kentucky.

This doll is in the Bryant House in Kentucky.

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

Just imagine the delight of a little girl receiving this miniature tea set to use with her doll.

Just imagine the delight of a little girl receiving this miniature tea set to use with her doll.

A Homemade Checker Board

A homemade checker board with slices of corn cob as the checkers.

A homemade checker board with slices of corn cob as the checkers.

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.
Illustration from a vintage book showing children in clothing from the mid-1800s. Perhaps they are writing a letter to their papa who is far away serving in the military.

Illustration from a vintage book showing children in clothing from the mid-1800s. Perhaps they are writing a letter to their papa who is far away serving in the military.

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.

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.

1864 Christmas for the Army - Newspaper Clipping

Clipped from The Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 Dec 1864, Thu, Page 1 (see below for the transcription of this clipping)

Clipped from The Philadelphia Inquirer, 29 Dec 1864, Thu, Page 1 (see below for the transcription of this 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

Buffalo Weekly Express, 05 Jan 1864, Tue, Page 4

Buffalo Weekly Express, 05 Jan 1864, Tue, Page 4

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

Please Leave a Greeting Here

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on December 22, 2014:

I have seen some etchings by Thomas Nast in a museum. They are wonderful! Times were certainly tough back then on the soldiers as well as their families. Many of your Amazon capsules have disappeared. The same has happened with most of mine. I have replaced some of them with eBay capsules.

Mel Carriere from Snowbound and down in Northern Colorado on December 20, 2014:

Hope your book goes well. I think essentially Christmas had the same spirit back then, although the trappings were somewhat different. Great hub!

nonya222 on November 11, 2013:

Adds a human touch to history.

CherylsArt on September 02, 2013:

I wouldn't have guessed that the 1860's drawing of Santa was Santa!

chas65 on December 23, 2012:

Neat to se a historical perspective on Christmas at a time that was so devastating to our country.

Ann Hinds from So Cal on December 22, 2012:

Great lens that is going to take a while to read through. Merry Christmas! Blessed

Nancy Carol Brown Hardin from Las Vegas, NV on December 22, 2012:

You do such thorough research, and it always shows in your excellent lenses. Congratulations on another purple star! The Civil War was terrible for those who had to fight and possibly die during the war, but I so enjoy reading about the people who had to cope with living during that time. What sacrifices and tribulations they had to endure just to get through each day, was a sort of battle in itself. Blessed by a SquidAngel.

anonymous on December 17, 2012:

This is interesting for Civil War history buffs. Merry Christmas to you!

I featured this lovely lens on The Civil War Unit Study. - Blessed!

MaryThereseBenn on June 19, 2012:

I guess I should have been a librarian, because I really enjoy this subject and loved your lens! Off to read more of them!

anonymous on December 25, 2011:

I enjoyed your lens. I've never thought about what Christmas must have been like during the dark days of the civil war. Thanks for sharing this with us. Merry Christmas!

Sandra Wilson from Wilson Education Resource Centre on December 25, 2011:

this is a wonderful lens showing a great moment in time. I would like to add a link to my Wartime Christmas lens! Thanks for the wonderful work you put into this!

KimGiancaterino on December 23, 2011:

What a unique perspective on celebrating Christmas. I'd like to read some of the diaries later. Thanks for pulling together these resources. Merry Christmas!

Gayle from McLaughlin on December 10, 2011:

Really enjoyed the Civil War pictures and greeting cards! What a unique article! You rock!

Barbara Walton from France on December 05, 2011:

What a wonderful lens, so full of information and beautifully illustrated. Blessed

Peggy Hazelwood from Desert Southwest, U.S.A. on December 03, 2011:

Oh to be a fly on the wall. Wouldn't that be fun to see how they celebrated 150 years ago!

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