What Was Christmas Like During the Civil War?

By Linda Peck

Present-day Christmas conjures memories of snow, lighted trees, cinnamon, gifts, parties, and music. If we lived during the Civil War, what kinds of memories would we have? Would they be of family, food, warmth, and parties, or would they be of just trying to survive and stave off hunger? Would there be presents under the tree, or would we be happy just to be present with our loved ones? To learn a bit more about Christmas during the years 1861-1864, explore the items in the library and the Web sites listed below.

In the Library

Christmas Customs and Traditions, Their History and Significance by Clement A. Miles
This wide-ranging, well-researched book includes Victorian-era traditions.

Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters by Pat McKissack
See how Christmas was celebrated by slaves and also by their masters just before the Civil War. Includes riddles, rhymes, recipes, and realistic paintings. For older children and adults.

God Rest Ye Merry, Soldiers: A True Civil War Story by James McIvor
Retells a story of Christmas 1862 when Union and Confederate troops serenaded one another across on a cold night before a bloody battle. This volume also includes soldiers' letters as well as Christmas poems and songs of the period.

Junius and Albert's Adventures in the Confederacy by Peter Carlson
Captured by the Confederates, two Union reporters, or "Knights of the Quill," gave a lively account of their work on the battlefield and subsequent imprisonment and escape. And, yes, they were there for Christmas.

Our Simple Gifts: Civil War Christmas Tales by Owen Parry
Parry brings us a moving quartet of unforgettable tales that celebrate the simple and often forgotten pleasures of generosity, friends, kindness, and family. Our Simple Gifts is a wonderful gift of hope and joy from an unparalleled storyteller.

A sampling of articles available through our JSTOR database

Bigham, S., & May, R. (1998). "The Time O' All Times? Masters, Slaves, and Christmas in the Old South." Journal of the Early Republic, 18(2), 263-288. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.librarypoint.org/stable/3124894 doi:1. (Mainly antebellum customs)

Boettger, S. (1992). "Eastman Johnson's 'Blodgett Family' and Domestic Values during the Civil War Era." American Art, 6(4), 57-58. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/3109082, opens a new window. (How portrayal of a well-to-do New York family's holidays changed during the Civil War)

Kaufman, C. (2004). "The Ideal Christmas Dinner." Gastronomica, 4(4), 17-24. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.librarypoint.org/stable/10.1525/gfc.2004.4.4.17 doi:1. pp.21-22 (Notes on what families and friends were expected to send to Union soldiers at the front)

Taylor, J. (1967). "Slavery in Louisiana during the Civil War." Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association, 8(1), 28-29. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.librarypoint.org/stable/4230932 (As Union troops drew closer, slaves on one sugar plantation stopped production for Christmas, whether the plantation owner wanted them to or not)

Whitley, W., Mitcham, C., & Lupold, H. (1974). "CIVIL WAR LETTERS." The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, 72(3), 267-268. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.proxy.librarypoint.org/stable/23377866 (A Southern soldier regrets that both the war and his hosts' religious feelings prevented him from partaking in a merrier Christmas)

On the Web

Christmas North and South
A brief overview of Christmas traditions during the Civil War.

Christmas During the Civil War
The Civil War Trust has a short, original article and links out to primary sources and information from museums.

A Florida Lad's Four Christmases
The diary entries of Robert Watson from Key West, Florida.

Letter of Talley Simpson
A letter from Talley Simpson to his sister, Anna Simpson, written December 25, 1862 from his camp near Fredericksburg in the aftermath of the battle.

Ought it not be a Merry Christmas?
Holiday observances during the Civil War.