What was life really like in Gettysburg during the Christmas holidays of 1863?
Gettysburg, PA, December 23, 2008 — What was life really like during the holidays of the Civil War? That question is answered in an article released today from battlefield guide and Civil War expert Joe Mieczkowski of the Lincoln Leadership Institute at Gettysburg.
“As one can imagine, there was a desire to unite, celebrate, and honor the fallen soldiers during the Christmas of 1863 — especially in Gettysburg where people were still reeling from the incredible loss of thousands of husbands, sons, fathers, and kin,” writes Mieczkowski, who points out that traditions we hold dear today — such as Christmas cards, carols, special foods, holding winter dances — all date back to this time.
New traditions were also born, such as cutting down fir and pine trees that were brought into the home. “Unlike today, the trees were tabletop size and arranged with greenery and mistletoe — items thought to bring good luck to the family.”
The modern day Santa Claus was also introduced in 1861, when a German immigrant working as an artist at Harper's Weekly named Thomas Nast was tasked to provide a drawing to accompany the 1821 poem, “T'was the Night Before Christmas.”
“Nast called upon his childhood memories to create our modern day image of Santa Claus,” says Mieczkowski. “His cherubic Santa Claus, was a bit thin by today's standards. Santa brought children homemade gifts and they were often satisfied to receive just small hand-carved toys, cakes, oranges or apples.”
To keep their minds off the war, Mieczkowski explains that children enjoyed the winter weather outdoors by sledding, skating and engaging in snowball fights. Inside they played a variety of parlor games such as "The Christmas Bag" in which a paper sack filled with sugarplums was suspended in a doorway. Blindfolded children swung a stick to break the bag and spill its contents on the floor.
Nonetheless, celebrating Christmas made the heartache for lost loved ones more acute.
“As the war dragged on, deprivation replaced abundant meals and familiar faces were missing from the family dinner table,” Mieczkowski shares. “Soldiers used to "bringing in the tree" and caroling in church were instead scavenging for firewood and singing drinking songs around the campfire.”
Additionally, Union soldiers' letters mention decorating their camp Christmas trees with salt-pork and hard tack. “Those soldiers lucky enough to receive a holiday box from home could supplement a meager meal with turkey, oysters, eggnog, cranberries and fruitcake. For many, it would be several years before the spirit of the holidays would return.”
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