“Twas the night before Christmas ....”
Those famous words, attributed to New Yorker Clement Clarke Moore, were just as popular during the Civil War period as they are today.
The poem, supposedly written for Moore’s children in 1822, was reprinted annually by American newspapers after first appearing anonymously in a Troy, N.Y. newspaper in 1823.
With its “jolly ole elf” depiction of Santa Claus, the poem did much to shape the image still treasured by youngsters today.
It was another New Yorker, Thomas Nast, who actually put a face on Santa with a series of illustrations he did for Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper and Harper’s Weekly, the most popular publication of its day.
Nast, the son of a German immigrant, was a Radical Republican and strong abolitionist. By contrast, Moore was a slave owner despite his toney Manhattan address.
.In 1861, Nast was assigned by his bosses at Harper's Weekly to draw an illustration for “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” His Santa was drawn from Nast’s Bavarian roots and was among the first American commercial images of Santa. In 1863, Nast drew Santa crawling down a chimney.
But in fact, many of the aspects of today’s modern Christmas celebration were already ingrained by 1850.
Christmas cards, carols, holiday and festive winter dances, all date back to the late 1850s. Tabletop Christmas trees, decorated with ribbons, greenery and homemade ornaments were common. “Eggnogging,” one of the biggest American traditions, dated back to the Colonial days, supplanting the English tradition of wassailing.
An egg and cream-based drink, eggnog differed from wassail, which used fruit as a base for an alcoholic concoction.
Traditionally, eggnog was a powerful drink. George Washington's recipe called for one quart of cream, one quart of milk, a dozen eggs, one pint of brandy, a half pint of rye, a quarter pint of rum and a quarter pint of sherry.
Elaborate holiday feasts were common in the days before the war and had more than a little bit to do with the writings of another author, Charles Dickens, who reinvented and popularized Christmas.
A typical menu from before the Civil War might feature:
Mock turtle soup; stewed rock-fish; roasted ham; roasted venison with currant-jelly; boiled turkey with oyster sauce; roast geese with apple sauce; French oyster pie; fricasseed chickens; potatoes snow; parsnips; beets; winter-squash; cold-slaw--Plum pudding; mince-pies; orange tarts; cream coconut pudding; Spanish blanc-mange; apple-jelly; vanilla ice-cream.
It was Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” which put the holiday back on the map and put the “prize turkey” and plum pudding on the menu.
That famous plum pudding that Mrs. Cratchit crowns the Cratchit Christmas dinner with was not made of plums, but raisins.
The 'copper' used to boil the pudding was used the rest of the year for the Cratchit family laundry thus the Cratchit children help Tiny Tim to the wash-house 'that he might hear the pudding singing in the copper'.
A Plum Pudding Recipe:
1 cup finely chopped beef suet, 2 cups fine bread crumbs, 1 cup sugar, 1 cup milk, 1 pint flour, 1 cup seedless raisins, 1 cup dried currants, 1 cup chopped almonds, 1/2 cup citron, sliced thin, 1 tsp salt, 1 tsp cloves, 2 tsp cinnamon, 1 tsp nutmeg, 4 well-beaten eggs, 1 tsp of baking soda dissolved in 1 tbsp warm water
Flour the fruit thoroughly.
In a large bowl, mix the eggs, sugar, spices, and salt in the milk.
Stir in the fruit, nuts, breadcrumbs, and suet. Then stir in the dissolved baking soda. Then add in the flour.
Boil or steam for 4 hours.
To flame pudding, warm 1/4 cup of brandy. Make a small depression in the top of the pudding and pour brandy over it. Light with a match.
Even among the well-to-do, Christmas gifts were small and often homemade. Good little boys and girls were content to receive small toys, candy and fruit in their stockings.
On the front lines, Union troops often fared better than Confederates, but in the early days of the war, soldiers enjoyed feasting.
“Christmas Eve, and I am on duty as officer of the day, but I am not on duty to-morrow. As much as I desire to see you all, I would not leave my company alone ... I give my company a Christmas dinner to-morrow, consisting of turkey, oysters, pies, apples, etc.; no liquors,” wrote Captain Robert Goldthwaite Carter of the 22nd Massachusetts on Dec. 24, 1861.
Things were a bit less entertaining for Confederate Private Robert A. Moore.
“This is Christmas & and very dull Christmas it has been to me. Had an egg-nog to-night but did not enjoy it much as we had no ladies to share it with us,” Moore wrote on Dec. 25, 1861.
In Virginia, Lucy Rebecca Buck wrote in her diary on Dec. 25, 1861:
“I cannot but feel a little sad this morning for my thoughts continually revert to those dear absent brothers who were wont to share our Christmas cheer and gladden the hours of this festive season for us. Poor boys! I wonder if they think of the blazing hearthstone at old Bel Air (the family home) and wish for a place in the home-circle. I think of it all and sicken when I think.”
Sallie Brock Putnam spent her Christmas of 1861 at home in Richmond sewing caps, stockings and scarves for the soldiers.
Soldiers and their friends and family back home were more war-weary the following Christmas.
“This is Christmas, and my mind wanders back to that home made lonesome by my absence, while far away from the peace and quietude of civil life to undergo the hardships of the camp, and may be the battle field. I think of the many lives that are endangered, and hope that the time will soon come when peace, with its innumerable blessings, shall once more restore our country to happiness and prosperity,” penned Corp. J.C.Williams of the 14th Vermont.
By Christmas of 1863, the Union naval blockade made the situation for Southerners even more dire. Youngsters were told Old St. Nick had gone to war or that he couldn’t get past the blockade.
Christmas of 1864 found both North and South longing for peace.
“Peace on Earth, Good will to men should prevail. We certainly would preserve the peace if they would go home and let us alone...” wrote Johnny Green of the 4th Kentucky.
“The one worn-out railroad running to the far South could not bring us half enough necessary supplies: and even if it could have transported Christmas boxes of good things, the people at home were too depleted to send them,” wrote Confederate Gen. John Bell Gordon.
In Georgia, some of Gen. William T. Sherman’s troops put tree-branch antlers on their horses and played Santa for starving families.
Then Sherman sent his famous Christmas telegram to President Abraham Lincoln:
"I beg to present you as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 100 and 50 guns and plenty of ammunition, also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”
The war was nearly over.