Perhaps at no
other time were the shortages in the South felt more keenly than at
Christmas. Mothers who successfully overcame shortages of every known
item with zeal, even taking pride in their crude make-shift
substitutions, were often reduced to tears when Christmas came and they
were not able to provide expected repasts and gifts for their children.
was played out in homes across the South to such an extent that a book
was written to explain why Santa did not always visit the little
Southern children during the war years.
a northern woman who had married and moved South before the war,
described Christmas in the 1840's as being an elaborate affair
celebrated with family and presents for all under the Christmas tree
which was lighted with wax candles. She mentioned gilt decorations and
presents for the children also being hung on the tree.
She and her
husband followed the custom of allowing the servants to indulge in a
week of frolic at Christmas complete with dancing, killing an ox for
their holiday feast, and providing them with rice, sugar, and coffee.
The custom of
the Christmas tree seems to have originated in Germany, spread to
England and other countries and then to America. Queen Victoria
described in her diary the tree her aunt had decorated in 1832. In 1848
The Illustrated London News published an engraving of the royal
family with their Christmas tree and presents. This engraving was
"Americanized" and published in 1850 by Godey's Lady's Book.
Christmas decorations didn't come into play in America until postwar, by
1861 holiday custom dictated many if not most homes had a Christmas
tree, mistletoe and other greenery to liven up mantles and tables,
stockings hung in anticipation of St. Nicholas' filling them with sweets
or perhaps an orange, special food and drink prepared for family and
guests, gifts for children and servants, and often times Christmas cards
to exchange with those too far away to afford the luxury of a holiday
sometimes were utilized as Christmas tree decorations included edible
treats such as dried or sugared fruit, nuts, and popcorn balls or
strings along with ribbons, colored paper, etc.
found their way onto the branches included needle books, pin cushions,
paint boxes, jewelry, tops, pen wipers, etc.
In 1830 Clement
Moore's poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" appeared along with an
engraving of the jolly man which had been produced by Myron King. Other
engravings of Santa were published by 1845.
the first to pen an image of Santa, Thomas Nast probably did more to
popularize the image than anyone else. Nast's first illustration of
Santa appeared in 1863. It was drawn in 1862 but wasn't published until
1863. It portrayed Santa in a patriotic outfit of striped pants, and
star spangled jacket reflecting Nast's support of the Union. President
Lincoln is said to have been favorably impressed with Nast's efforts to
portray Santa in a patriotic light. Also equally well received was
Nast's image of Santa which appeared in Harper's Weekly January
1881. This image is still one of the best known images of Santa Claus.
sometimes served with accompaniment of spirits, was standard in most
homes during the holiday season until the war made even such a simple
staple a luxury out of reach of most Southerners.
decorations utilized exotic fruits such as pineapples, lemons, limes,
pomegranates, and kumquats along with cuttings of holly, bayberry, china
berry, mistletoe, magnolia, ivy, and pine cones.
nurse, Kate Cumming, was up well before daylight making eggnog for the
hospital in which she worked. She was unable to procure enough eggs to
serve everyone so the holiday treat was given to the wounded, the cooks,
and nurses. The doctor had done his best to provide a holiday meal
which consisted of turkeys, chickens, vegetables, and pies. Kate's
delight with the meal was contained due to her knowledge that the men in
the field had not fared as well.
felt in different degrees at different times, but generally throughout
the Confederacy. Myra Inman of East Tennessee made brief mention in her
diary of Christmas 1860 and 1865 as being pleasant but did not mention
the years during the war leading us to believe they were sparse.
Clemson, granddaughter of John C. Calhoun was typical of prominent
families who endured shortages during the war. She noted in 1863 her
only gift at Christmas was a pair of sleeve buttons.
Lucy Buck was
one of many Southern women who noted in her diary her attempts to
provide holiday fare using crude substitutes. In 1862 her Christmas
cakes were sweetened with honey and sorghum. These sweet treats along
with some simple toys and a few pieces of candy provided by an uncle
found their way into the children's stockings which had been hung next
to the chimney.
difference a year made in her outlook upon the holiday season. The
highlight of the giving was in receiving a letter from a loved one for
herself while filling the children's stockings with crude home-made
treats. In contrasting their "limited means" with Christmases of the
past she became so melancholy she retired to her room for a good cry.
While the family managed to have a turkey and mince pies for holiday
fare Lucy worried that her brothers who were away in the army might have
had no dinner at all.
Breckinridge compared Christmas 1862 with that of previous years in
saying she and her parents spent Christmas Eve gravely talking about
matters at hand as if there were no such thing as Christmas.
described her holiday dinner as consisting of a ham which had been given
to them by a friend, a turkey they'd raised themselves, and a pudding
made from bread and sorghum saying it was the grandest meal they'd had
in some time, but that none present took enjoyment in it for worrying
how their family members in the army had fared. A letter arrived a
short time afterward saying their fare had been half done cornbread.
By 1861 Kate
Stone's family had experienced hardships which were reflected in her
description of Christmas. She stated they'd had the "customary eggnog"
but that it had been less than expected and made with "borrowed"
whiskey. She stated it was the first holiday they could remember that
was not a time of fun and feasting.
found Kate visiting soldier friends who told her they could visit on
Christmas Eve but would not be able to leave on Christmas day. She
gathered mistletoe and crimson casino berries with which to decorate her
home. Unlike the Christmas before she stated that they were able to
make cakes and treats despite hearing firing in the distance.
family made no observance of the holiday in 1863 other than preparing an
eggnog which the family found no joy in. She recalled consoling a child
the previous Christmas telling her that Santa could not get through the
blockades to bring the usual gifts.
Putnam of Richmond stated Christmas 1861 had been spent preparing warm
items - hose, a visor, or colorful scarf - for the soldiers. Citizens
found the comfort of the soldiers to be foremost in their minds and
nameless quantities of food found their way to the camps to cheer the
soldier who would not know the comfort of his family's love on that holy
mentioned being sent to the soldiers included hams, pickles, turkey,
eggnog and pound cake while citizens' tables were often devoid of such
and vacant chairs were all too familiar to many homes by Christmas 1862.
Mrs. Putnam recorded that even the children rarely made mention of the
holiday feeling instead the keen loss of some family member or friend.
noted that Christmas of 1863 was sad and that snow was eminent.
Thoughts were on the soldiers whose thoughts of home would do little to
warm their hearts. Mr. Jones' children had decorated their parlor with
evergreens, crosses and stars, and the focus of their efforts was a
decorated cedar tree. The family was not able to enjoy turkey but Mr.
Jones stated it was no loss as the family had no heart to partake in the
holiday anyway. He stated the tree would be sparsely decorated since
candy was selling for $8.00 per pound - almost an entire month's pay for
a Confederate private.
were hit or miss in the South as the war continued. Items which found
their way into use included colored pictures which were cut out and
added to trees and mantles to provide color. Cornucopias were made by
wrapping paper around a conical-shaped block and pasting it together.
These were then filled with whatever treats could be had. Strings of
popcorn were wound around trees, sometimes along with berries added for
Items used to
fill stockings varied according to the means of the parent, and the
availability of goods, but might have contained molasses candy, apples,
an orange, woolen balls, a pair of gloves or a handkerchief.
Jefferson Davis family suffered for want of holiday luxuries. Varina
Davis penned a description of her Christmas in the Confederate white
house which tells of hardship and depravation. She had tried with help
to see that orphans received some Christmas fare. She and others had
repaired toys giving them a new life so that some child who now knew no
parent to comfort them would have some trinket to acknowledge Christmas.
entertaining the children they missed a call by Gen. Robert E. Lee who
had come to apologize for accepting a barrel of sweet potatoes he later
discovered had been intended for the Davis family. He'd taken a dish
for himself and had the remainder distributed among the troops and by
the time he had discovered the intended recipient of the gift they had
been consumed by hungry soldiers. Mrs. Davis stated she would have
rather seen them thus distributed anyway.
A church in
Nashville reported that the congregation had attempted to provide for
the children in its Sunday School by providing a tree decorated with
flowers and candles and distributing various toys and candies to the
children in 1864.
Literary Messenger published the following in January 1863:
Christmas Night of '62
wintry blast goes wailing by,
- The snow
is falling overhead
- I hear
the lonely sentry's tread,
distant watch-fires light the sky.
forms go flitting through the gloom
soldiers cluster 'round the blaze
- To talk
of other Christmas days
softly speak of home and home.
- My sabre
in the watch-fires fitful glow
fiercely drives the blinding snow
Memory leads me to the dead.
thoughts go wandering to and fro,
Vibrating 'twixt the Now and Then
- I see
the low-brow'd home agen,
- The old
hall wreathed with mistletoe.
sweetly from the far-off years
borne the laughter faint and
voices of the Long Ago!
- My eyes
are wet with tender tears.
- I feel
agen the mother-kiss,
- I see
agen the glad surprise,
lightened up the tranquil eyes,
brimmed them o'er with tears of bliss.
rushing from the old hall-door
fondly clasped her wayward boy,
- Her face
all radiant with the joy
- She felt
to see him home once more.
- My sabre
swinging on the bough,
in the watch-fires fitful glow
fiercely drives the blinding snow
upon my widened brow.
cherished faces all are gone,
within the quiet graves,
lies the snow in drifting waves,
- And I am
sitting here alone.
not a comrade here to-night,
knows that loved ones far away
bended knees this night will pray;
bring our darling from the fight."
there are none to wish me back,
- For me
no yearning prayers arise,
- The lips
are mute and closed the eyes,-
- My home
is in the Bivouac."
McGuire recorded in her diary that her family had received a box sent to
them by a young officer who had captured it from the enemy. She
intended that the contents should be shared with refugee friends and
listed among the items found in the box white sugar, raisins, preserves,
pickles, spices, etc. These luxuries were shared with those even less
fortunate when she recorded their lack of a standard Christmas meal due
to hams and turkeys ranging in price from $50. to $100. They had,
instead, roast beef and "various little dishes which Confederate times
have made us believe are tolerable substitutes for the viands of better
days." Their only luxury was ginger cakes sweetened with sorghum.
McDonald had worked tirelessly preparing rusks and cakes for her
children for the holiday when her yard filled with Union soldiers
content on carrying away her labors. When a soldier started away with
the Christmas turkey she had secured at a high expense and the
exacerbation of having to send away quite a distance for it she ran into
the yard and demanded that he give it to her.
in laying claim to the turkey only to find that her kitchen had filled
with soldiers who were intent on carrying off the baked goods. She
chased one soldier into the yard to retrieve a pan of rusks and while
thus engaged an officer witnessed the exchange and provided a guard for
her. While she saved the meager Christmas repast she lost her
outbuildings and fences along with an ample supply of firewood which had
been cut and split by her young sons.
were primarily available in the North, however, a passage recorded by
Capt. Robert Emory Park of the l2th Alabama tells us cranberries were
not unknown to Southern tables. "Ate hearty dinner, minus the home
turkey and cranberries, and oysters, eggnog and fruit cake then wrote to
my mother and sisters."
A member of the
15th Alabama described his holiday dinner as having included turkey, ham
and cabbage, and potatoes with genuine coffee and sugar.
Over the years
some foods had become synonymous with the Christmas season. These
included mince pies, the ever-present eggnog, and plum pudding. Even
during the war when Mrs. Davis was seeing to the needs of orphan
children Mary Chestnut recorded in her diary that her cook had provided
mince pies and plum pudding for their holiday meal.
published the following receipt for Plum Pudding:
one pound of the best raisins, wash and pick one pound of currants, chop
very small one pound of fresh beef suet, blanch and chop small or pound
two ounces of sweet almonds and one ounce of bitter ones; mix the whole
well together, with one pound of sifted flour, and the same weight of
crumb of bread soaked in milk, then squeezed dry and stirred with a
spoon until reduced to a mash, before it is mixed with the flour. Cut
in small pieces two ounces each of preserved citron, orange, and
lemon-peel, and add a quarter of an ounce of mixed spice; quarter of a
pound of moist sugar should be put into a basin, with eight eggs, and
well beaten together with a three-pronged fork; stir this with the
pudding, and make it of a proper consistence with milk. Remember that
it must not be made too thin, or the fruit will sink to the bottom, but
be made to the consistence of good thick batter. Two wineglassfuls of
brandy should be poured over the fruit and spice, mixed together in a
basin, and allowed to stand three or four hours before the pudding is
made, stirring them occasionally. It must be tied in a cloth, and will
take five hours of constant boiling. When done, turn it out on a dish,
sift loaf sugar over the top, and serve it with wine-sauce in a boat,
and some poured round the pudding. The pudding will be of considerable
size, but half the quantity of materials, used in the same proportion
will be equally good.
A prewar or
1861 Southern Christmas menu might consist of baked ham, turkey,
oysters, salmon, vegetables such as would have been stored for winter -
winter squash, cabbage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, celery,
carrots, apples, pears, pumpkin, etc., preserves, pickles, relishes,
breads, and perhaps shortbread, apple pie, rice pudding, or gingerbread
with lemon curd for dessert. If a ham or turkey is felt to be too
extravagant for an 1861 Christmas meal one might consider serving a
chicken fricassee or chicken pie instead.
homes would have had blackberry cordial and wine, brandy would have been
a prime choice of ingredient for the eggnog. Apple jack was described
as being part of at one early war Christmas meal. For1861 holiday fare
coffee and/or tea might have been saved for a holiday repast, but
otherwise might have already been scarce in some areas, possibly having
been sent to the troops in the field.
Lady's Book. Various issues 1861-1865.
- A Rebel
War Clerk's Diary. Jones, John B. Philadelphia. 1866. J. B.
Lippincott & Co.
During the War: Four Years of Personal Observation. Putnam,
Sallie Brock. University of Nebraska Press. 1996.
Brokenburn: The Journal of Kate Stone 1861-1868. Stone, Kate.
Louisiana State U. Press. 1995.
- The Diary
of Miss Emma Holmes 1861-1866. Holmes, Emma. Louisiana State U.
Antebellum Plantation Household: Including the South Carolina Low
Country Receipts and Remedies of Emily Wharton Sinkler. LeClercq,
Anne Sinkler Whaley. U. of SC Press. 1996.
- A Journal
of Hospital Life In the Confederate Army of Tennessee from the Battle
of Shiloh to the End of the War. Cumming, Kate. Louisville,
Breckinridge of Grove Hill: The Journal of a Virginia Girl 1862-1864.
Breckinridge, Lucy. U. of SC Press. 1994.
Earth, Sweet Heaven: The Diary of Lucy Rebecca Buck. Buck, Lucy.
Buck Publishing. 1992.
- A Rebel
Came Home: The Diary and Letters of Floride Clemson 1863-1866. Clemson,
Floride. U. of SC Press. 1989.
Confederate Women. Wiley, Bell Irwin. Reprint Barnes & Noble.
articles - Various papers & dates including The New York World,
Sunday, Dec. 13, 1896.
Literary Messenger. Jan. 1863. Richmond. T. W.White publisher.
- Diary of
a Southern Refugee During the War By a Lady of Virginia. McGuire,
Judith W. U. of Nebraska Press. 1996.
- Ersatz in
the Confederacy: A History of Shortages and Substitutions on the
Southern Homefront. Massey, Mary Elizabeth.
Inman: A Diary of the Civil War in East Tennessee.
University Press. 2000
- We Were
Marching on Christmas Day: A History and Chronicle of Christmas
During the Civil War. Rawlings, Kevin. Toomey Press. 1995