The Potency of the Christmas Wish
December 25, 1862: The cold of winter hits straight to the core, forcing individuals to reflect upon their most internal desires and needs. Soldiers are tired, beaten, and hungry, lost in a never-ending stream of battles. Families are far from these battles, and therefore lost in their isolation from their loved ones and distance from war. To those at home the war is a mystery, while for those at war it is all too much of a reality. Christmas, a time when wishes are answered and problems are addressed, offers an opportunity for a vital interruption in the gloom of the lives of both those at war and at home. Soldiers and individuals at home used Christmas as an opportunity to solve deep internal conflicts and desires; however, soldiers sought an escape from the war that those at home wanted a way in to.
In a letter to his wife on December 25, 1862, Robert E. Lee clearly illustrates the mental condition of the soldiers at war. Lee begins his letter by thanking God for the recent successes of the Confederate army in the battle of Fredericksburg.[i] Lee continues his writing by making grander claims about the war. He laments “what a cruel thing is war; to separate and destroy families and friends, and mar the purest joys and happiness God has granted us in this world; to fill our hearts with hatred instead of love for our neighbors, and to devastate the fair face of this beautiful world!”[ii] Lee is clearly upset about his physical and mental distance from his family and friends at home. There is a contrast between the nature of war and the nature of Christmas, as Christmas is a time when “families and friends” would normally be able to experience the “purest joys and happiness” granted by God. However, now in war, Lee is distant from home and does not see joy or peace in sight. In this way, Lee has set up war as an antichrist. While Lee recognizes God’s strength bestowed upon him and his men on the battlefield, he still sees war’s un-holiness since it disconnects men from what “God has granted.” Lee is explaining the feeling of utter isolation of soldiers on Christmas. They are disconnected from family, disconnected from faith, and Christmas makes both these distances even greater. Christmas would normally be a time of joyous expressions of Christianity mingled with family festivities, but for the soldiers at war, it is an awful reminder of their isolation from the joys God has granted and their loved ones.
More common soldiers mirror the commander’s feeling of isolation on Christmas day. Confederate Soldier William Gordon McCabe composed a poem on Christmas night, 1862. McCabe focuses his poem on his thoughts that are “vibrating twixt the Now and Then.”[iii] The “now” referring to Christmas present, and the war at hand, the “then” representing “home” and all that it entails. McCabe illustrates that loneliness has its place in both his life at war and his memory of life at home. While he describes himself among “soldiers clustered around the blaze,” he reflects that in truth he is “sitting here alone.”[iv] McCabe, and most likely many soldiers, is lonely in company. Yet, McCabe goes a step further to contrast this loneliness with his isolation from home. He believes “there are none to wish” him “back” through prayer, and his last line declares, “My home is the bivouac.”[v] McCabe calling his home a bivouac illustrates the temporary state of his condition and the validity of his loneliness. Most likely McCabe’s condition reflects that of many soldiers, both confederate and union.
William McCabe’s condition is not far from Robert E. Lee, who separated from “families and friends” and far from God’s “purest joys” also possesses some form of isolation. This isolation seems consistent for many who endured Christmas of 1862. Both soldiers and families at home felt isolated by the war, which separated them from each other, while also put their Christianity into question. Christmas itself was an isolating factor, as it suspended Christians in uncertainty as how they should celebrate the usually joyous holiday. This isolation propelled individuals on Christmas day to examine their present, and look for company where it could be found. This is where individuals began to use Christmas as a remedy to their state of mind. For soldiers at war, who were distant from God’s joy and the feeling of familial support, Christmas was the remedy to their condition.
Soldiers saw Christmas as an opportunity to experience peace, joy, and celebration and reclaim the joys Christmas delivers. Thomas Nast, an illustrator for Harpers Weekly, was asked to do the cover for the January 3 issue. Nast titled his drawing “Santa Claus In Camp.”[vi] The illustration depicts a patriotically dressed Santa Claus bestowing gifts to Union soldiers. It is thought that through his depiction of Santa Claus on this cover, Nast introduced Santa Claus into the Christmas of Americans. Nast is somewhat credited for “inventing” Santa Claus because of this.[vii] Two soldiers in the foreground, who appear much smaller than the other soldiers, are sitting in child-like positions playing with a Jack-in-the-box. Nowhere in the entire illustration is there a reference to Christianity. This illustration represents a pivotal shift in the understanding of Christmas for some individuals. Santa Claus represents secular-gift giving, while Christmas for many generations centered on religious activity.[viii] . Nast’s usage of Santa Claus illustrates the need of many soldiers to escape the religious burdens and thoughts of an unholy war to a pure, childish, sense of joy. Santa, with no Christian roots, shifts the soldiers from thinking about their distance from Christianity, to accepting a pure, secular, joy. Nast’s placement of Santa Claus in a camp makes Christmas appear light and merry at war, with less thought on the hardships soldiers are enduring. The article within Harper’s Weekly addressing the image cautions to “Children” that they “mustn’t think that Santa Claus comes to you alone” as Santa Claus brought a stack of Harper’s weekly to the soldiers so that “so that they, as well as you little folks, may have a peep at the Christmas number.”[ix] Nast identifies the soldiers as needing a “peep” at Christmas at home, which they could get from the particular “number” of Harper’s weekly. In this way Nast is representing the soldiers desire to be reconnected with those at home.
Nast’s interpretation of the soldier’s mental state turned out to be quite reflective of the needs of soldiers. In an article published in the New York Times on December 30, 1862, the festivities of a particular camp of soldiers are revealed. The article begins by explaining, “taking everything into consideration, yesterday was passed as happily and merrily by the troops as could be expected.”[x] This merriment shows that the soldiers were determined to enjoy Christmas despite the war. The article continues describing various festivities and “delicacies” enjoyed by the soldiers; “liquor (that) had been smuggled into camp,” “songs,” “games,” and “feats of strength.”[xi] The soldiers experienced the same boyish nature depicted by Nast in his illustration. Christmas was an opportunity to relax and enjoy the simplest forms of fun. The most joyous expression of Christmas, which the article focused on, was a Christmas tree created by a group of soldiers, which was “decorated profusely with army bread.”[xii] The author of the article claims “no one who saw the tree could suppress a hearty laugh.”[xiii] These soldiers have created their own joyous escapes from the hardships of war.
In the light of this article and Nast’s illustration, it seems Christmas on the battlefield was an opportunity for joyous escape from the isolations of war. The soldiers had to turn to a force different from God to feel the peace normally associated with Christmas. Resorting to childish emotions and behaviors delivered them the peace that they desired. This is because childish celebrations, while joyous, are often purposefully blind. The liquor and such obvious images of celebration such as Santa Claus and the breaded Christmas tree are all numbing coping mechanisms. They numb the intense internal struggles experienced by the soldiers, while delivering them to the sought after state of internal peace. Robert E. Lee and William McCabe were still so occupied by the reality of war that they were not delivered the same form of rest. It seems that on a whole, soldiers were more successful at addressing their needs to escape war on Christmas day, if they allowed a return to childish acts rather than a continued reflection deep internal battles.
Families at home were conflicted because of the war in an entirely different way, and therefore on Christmas day had a whole other set of needs to address. Many individuals were confused as to how they should spend their Christmas and questioned if the normal levels of merriment were appropriate. In an article titled “Christmas” printed in The Daily national Republican, the author addresses this concern. The article opens with a “merry Christmas!” and seems to be reflective of Christmas’ past, “the time of good cheer, of home greetings, of social intermingling’s, and of fond remembrances.”[xiv] This anecdote is along the lines of the “then” period that William McCabe referred to in his poem. The article then goes on to state “everybody has the right to be happy, and to enjoy the festivities of this good old-time anniversary.” Through this statement, the author directly addressing the concerns associated with celebrating Christmas in a merry fashion. The author is giving the readers a “right” to happiness and to celebrate Christmas through festivities.
While the author bestows this right onto his readers, later claims make it seem that the author believes this right will falter in the shadow of greater responsibilities and duties. The author claims that “Christmas is suggestive of peace” but that the true time of peace will come “when the showed is put back into the scabbard, and the nation shall have peace.”[xv] The author is saying that while Christmas normally is a time of tranquility, the future peacetime expected with the wars-end will occur at a level of incomparable serenity. Therefore the article is suggesting that Americans place their Christmas “peace” on reserve, as the wars end will offer a more meaningful and powerful deliverance of peace. In this way the author is postponing the right to peaceful happiness to a later date.
While postponing the peace and festivities, the author focuses the reader’s efforts onto a greater duty. The article continues with “in the meantime, we must do the best we can to meet the trials that are upon us, doing our duty like men and the Christians.”[xvi] The author is telling people to abandon their right to festivities and merriment and rather fulfill their “duty” as Christians in reconnecting with God. They must look towards the time of peace ahead while waiting in the unrest that fills their present. Therefore, by the end of the article, the author has left the readers at home with a duty to fulfill their rolls as responsible Christians.
The author’s final intent to inspire the Christian duty is in direct response to the needs of the people at home. Those at home are distant from the war and therefore distant from the sense of duty. Without a sense of duty, those at home can feel no reward, as they have nothing clear to fight for. However, in telling those at home to latch onto the duty of the noble Christian, the author is given those at home an opportunity to feel involved in the responsibilities of war. The author believes that “this war will develop a great many manly Christian and noble qualities in our people that the times of peace will never bring out.”[xvii] While the war is representative of destruction and unrest, it will deliver men noble qualities will reunite them with God’s honor (something that “times of peace” such as Christmas can’t do). The author is pairing the Christian duty he has created with a valuable reward. He is telling the people at home that if they focus on their Christian duties on this Christmas day, their efforts will deliver holiness and nobleness. The people at home must fight through their sorrows for Christianity, so that the possibility to for the development of “many manly Christian(s)” is not lost. The people at home finally have a sense of duty, and finally have their own cause to fight for. This makes them less distant from the war, as they now have their own wartime duty. Like the soldier on the battlefield who has a duty to fight for the prosperity of the nation, those at home now have the duty to fight for a deliverance of acceptance from God.
Through another illustration, Thomas Nast clearly depicts this new sense of duty for those at home in light of a holiday that would normally involve excessive amounts of celebration. In the same issue of Harper’s Weekly, Nast published an illustration titled “Christmas Eve 1862.”[xviii] The picture depicts a woman, kneeling by her children’s bedside, praying at a windowsill. On the opposing panel, there is a man, looking down at a picture of his family by the fireside. This illustration aluminates the sense of Christian responsibility felt at home. On Christmas Eve, the woman is dutifully praying for the safety of her husband, rather then experiencing merriment. The most clever, yet hidden, element of Nast’s illustration exists in the upper right and upper left hand corners. On the upper left, above the scene at home, Santa is filling a chimney with presents while the children are sound asleep. On the upper right, above the image of the soldier, Santa Claus is delivering presents to soldiers who are scrambling over each other to get their hands on a gift. This is reflective and consistent of the difference that is becoming clear between the Christmas on the battlefield and Christmas at home. At war, soldiers are looking for outward escapes; photographs of loved ones, presents from Santa, booze, Christmas trees, music, etc. Whereas at home, Santa is a mere image of the background, and priority falls on praying and keeping in touch with God.
At this moment, there is both a clear distinction between the experience at war and at home on Christmas day, but also a clear similarity. The distinction lies in the ability to have a merry holiday. Those at war are able to drink booze, decorate trees, and theoretically celebrate with Santa Clause. The people at home are asked to postpone celebration to a time ahead. These distinctions arise from the differences between the needs of the soldiers and the needs of those at home. Soldiers need to feel reconnected with society, and escape the hardships of war. Those at home have been distant from the cause of the war, and therefore need a way to establish involvement and understanding of the war. They both are able to do this through the multifaceted Christmas; the soldier through the secular parts, the individual at home through the religious elements. However, while these individuals at war and at home are separated by their needs on Christmas day, Christmas has developed a parallel duty. The soldiers have their perpetual duty to fight, while the people at home have the duty of a responsible Christian. This similarity would seemingly prove valuable in uniting individuals of both the union and the confederacy. Now the significance of the war has transgressed the battlefield to the household, and hopefully a greater force and willingness to fight will be present on both sides in the days to come.
[i] Lee, Robert E. Letter to His Wife. 25 December 1862. MS.
[iii] McCabe, William Gordon. “Christmas Night of ’62.” CivilWar.org. CivilWar, n.d., Web. 28 Oct. 2012.
[vi] Nast, Thomas. Santa Claus In Camp. 1863. Cartoons.osu.edu, Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
[vii] “Thomas Nast Portfolio.” Cartoons.osu.edu. Ohio State University. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
[ix] Rawlings, Kevin. “Christmas in the Civil War – December 1998 Civil War Times Feature.” HistoryNet. HistoryNet, 23 Sept. 1998. Web. 30 Oct. 2012.
[x] “”From Gen. Hooker’s Command.” New York Times (1857-1922) 30 Dec 1862. Print.
[xiv] “Christmas.” The Daily National Republican (1862-1866) 25 Dec. 1862. Print.
[xviii] Nast, Thomas. Christmas Eve 1862. 1863. Cartoons.osu.edu, Web. 30 Oct. 2012.