E-Newsletter: In the Spirit of the Holidays: What was life like in Gettysburg during the Christmas holidays of 1863?

By Joe Mieczkowski
Gettysburg Battlefield Guide
Lincoln Leadership Institute

December 2008 — 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.

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 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 household.

They also lit the tree with real candles, a tradition that sometime proved to be a bit hazardous. Homeowners were reminded to attend to their tree — and many kept a bucket of sand and a wet sponge nearby to douse any flames.

Here Comes Santa Claus

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 image of Santa Claus. His cherubic Santa was thin by today’s standards. Santa brought children gifts and gifts were always homemade. Children were satisfied to receive just small hand-carved toys, cakes, oranges or apples.

To keep their minds off the war, children enjoyed the winter weather outdoors by sledding, skating and engaging in snowball fights. Inside they had 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 swing a stick to break the bag and spill its contents on the floor.

The Sad Reality

Nonetheless, celebrating Christmas made the heartache for lost loved ones more acute. And as the war dragged on, deprivation replaced abundant meals and familiar faces were missing from the family dinner table.

Soldiers used to “bringing in the tree” and caroling in church were instead scavenging for firewood and singing drinking songs around the campfire. 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.