Celebrating Christmas during the 1860's

Celebrating Christmas during the 1860's




 Copyright - May not be reproduced without permission from:  Victoria Rumble  

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.  

This scenario 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.

Emily Sinkler, 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.

Although bought 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 visit.

Items which 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.  

Gifts which 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.

Although not 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.    

Eggnog, 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.  

Prewar 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.  

Confederate 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.

Shortages were 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.

Flouride 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.

What a 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.

Lucy 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.

Emma Holmes 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.

Christmas 1862 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.

The Stone 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.

Sallie Brock 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 night.  

Items she mentioned being sent to the soldiers included hams, pickles, turkey, eggnog and pound cake while citizens' tables were often devoid of such fare.  

Mourning attire 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.  

John Jones 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.

Decorations 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 color.

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.  

Even the 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.

While 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.

The Southern Literary Messenger published the following in January 1863:

Christmas Night of '62
The wintry blast goes wailing by,
The snow is falling overhead
I hear the lonely sentry's tread,
And distant watch-fires light the sky.
Dim forms go flitting through the gloom
The soldiers cluster 'round the blaze
To talk of other Christmas days
And softly speak of home and home.
My sabre swinging overhead
Gleams in the watch-fires fitful glow
While fiercely drives the blinding snow
And Memory leads me to the dead.
My 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.
And sweetly from the far-off years
Comes borne the laughter faint and
The voices of the Long Ago!
My eyes are wet with tender tears.
I feel agen the mother-kiss,
I see agen the glad surprise,
That lightened up the tranquil eyes,
And brimmed them o'er with tears of bliss.
As rushing from the old hall-door
She 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,
Gleams in the watch-fires fitful glow
While fiercely drives the blinding snow
Aslant upon my widened brow.
Those cherished faces all are gone,
Asleep within the quiet graves,
Where lies the snow in drifting waves,
And I am sitting here alone.
There's not a comrade here to-night,
But knows that loved ones far away
On bended knees this night will pray;
"God bring our darling from the fight."
But 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."

Mrs. Judith 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.

Cornelia Peake 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.  

She succeeded 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.

Cranberries 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.

Godey's published the following receipt for Plum Pudding:

Stone carefully 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.  

While most 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.


  • Godey's Lady's Book. Various issues 1861-1865.
  • A Rebel War Clerk's Diary.  Jones, John B.  Philadelphia. 1866. J. B. Lippincott & Co.
  • Richmond 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. Press.  1979.
  • An 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, KY.  1866
  • Lucy Breckinridge of Grove Hill:  The Journal of a Virginia Girl 1862-1864.  Breckinridge, Lucy.  U. of SC Press.  1994.
  • Sad 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. 1994.
  • Newspaper articles - Various papers & dates including  The New York World, Sunday, Dec. 13, 1896.
  • Southern 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.
  • Myra Inman:  A Diary of the Civil War in East Tennessee.  
  • Mercer University Press.  2000
  • We Were Marching on Christmas Day:  A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War.  Rawlings, Kevin.  Toomey Press. 1995


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