These days we read so many articles detailing the origins of various Xmas traditions – the placement of a ornamental tree inside the home, egg nog and other culinary delights, and the Christian adoption of the season to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Many would be surprised to know, however, that a number of seasonal traditions actually have their origins in the Civil War era.

During this tumultuous time of brother against brother, the holidays were still celebrated (mainly in the South) with the hope of a swift conclusion to the conflicts that divided our nation for many years. It is said, too, that the says were split on the issue of celebrating the holiday as much as they were on subjects that led to the war in the first place. Being that the nation was young, this generation grew from a Puritan time where celebrating Xmas was considered sinful, due to the roots of many traditions being steeped in paganism that the early Christians sought to suppress. It was not until the early nineteenth century when US says finally legalized the holiday – the first three being Alabama, Lousiana, and Arkansas.

These days, we might catch a glimpse of traditions we observe now in the Xmas scenes in Gone With the Wind and other movies depicting the time. They, however, only tell part of a story. Here follows just a short list of Xmas mainstays and traditions that evolved from this time in history.

Santa Claus

When the legend of Santa Claus has its roots in a much earlier time – reaching as far as the origins of Christianity itself – it is the modern depiction of this jolliest of elves that saw its creation in the mid-nineteenth century with Thomas Nast. Nast, a widely-known cartoonist of the day (arguably credited with being the father of the modern-day political cartoon), created the visage of Santa Claus for Harper’s Weekly around 1863. The billowing white beard, nose like a cherry, and wide-girthed figure bearing a sack full of toys soon became synonymous with the secular aspects of the holiday. These days, contemporary depictions of St. Nick don’t stray from Nast’s original vision.

Xmas Carols

Did you know that many of the songs we sing during this joyous occasion had originally been written during the darkest time of our nation’s history? Indeed, one could argue that any Xmas carols are actually the forerunners of the modern day protest song, as any carols penned in this time were actually thinly veiled commentary on the war. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” written by minister Edmund Sears, touches upon the desire for peace during this time, while Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Xmas Day” contains strong anti-war sentiment. Of course, one likely doesn’t sense this because the more blatant verses of Longfellow’s poem are omitted in the traditional carol we sing now. By contrast, Phillips Brooks’ “O Little Town of Bethelem” touches on the hope for peace in the aftermath of conflict.

Care Packages

When the troops were out to war, it was not uncommon for a soldier to receive gifts while at battle. Barrels of food and drink, warm clothing, and trinkets from home were especially prized and brought a modicum of cheer to an otherwise dismal situation. One could easily liken these gestures to traditions we hold today in sending care packages to our men and women overseas.

From the songs we sing to the icons we identify, one would be surprised to know how the Civil War influenced our contemporary observance of the Xmas season.


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