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.
Telegram from William Tecumseh Sherman to Abraham Lincoln,
December 22, 1864
Many authors write about the austerity of American Christmas celebrations prior to the Civil War (1861 – 1865), but that’s because those writers focus on the North’s Puritan heritage.
Most of our current ways — mostly Germanic in origin — of celebrating Christmas gelled during the Civil War, when families went for months without hearing about their men in battle.
But it was likely the absence of family that accelerated the acceptance of European-style Christmas customs throughout the United States at the time. In addition, around the time of the Civil War, the Great Awakening, a revival of religious sentiment, occurred. And this also encouraged the adoption of now-common Christmas symbols like the Christmas tree. The art of German artist Thomas Nast went a long way in creating the association between these symbols and America’s idea of Christmas.
However, in antebellum Virginia, and elsewhere in the South, boisterous Christmas celebrations were almost always the rule, not the exception. Just look at George Washington’s recipe for alcohol-laden eggnog:
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.
A pre-war Southern Christmas table likely displayed baked ham, turkey, oysters, winter vegetables from the root cellar — squash, cabbage, potatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, and apples. Preserves, pickles, relishes, breads, pies, and puddings would also appear on the table. Over the years several foods became synonymous with the season of Christmas: mince pie, eggnog, and plum pudding. A glance at one of Robert May’s menus in his 17th-century cookbook, The Accomplisht Cook, suggests where these traditions fermented:
A Bill of Fare for Christmas Day, and how to set the Meat in Order.:
1. A collar of brawn.
2. Stewed Broth of Mutton marrow bones.
3. A grand Sallet.
4. A pottage of caponets.
5. A breast of veal in stoffado.
6. A boil’d partridge.
7. A chine of beef, or surloin roast.
8. Minced pies.
9. A Jegote of mutton with anchove sauce.
10. A made dish of sweet-bread.
11. A swan roast.
12. A pasty of venison.
13. A kid with a pudding in his belly.
14. A steak pie.
15. A hanch of venison roasted.
16. A turkey roast and stuck with cloves.
17. A made dish of chickens in puff paste.
18. Two bran geese roasted, one larded.
19. Two large capons, one larded.
20. A Custard.
The second course for the same Mess.
Oranges and Lemons.
1. A Young lamb or kid.
2. Two couple of rabbits, two larded.
3. A pig souc’t with tongues.
4. Three ducks, one larded.
5. Three pheasants, 1 larded.
6. A Swan Pye.
7. Three brace of partridge, three larded.
8. Made dish in puff paste.
9. Bolonia sausages, and anchoves, mushrooms, and Cavieate, and pickled oysters in a dish.
10. Six teels, three larded.
11. A Gammon of Westphalia Bacon.
12. Ten plovers, five larded.
13. A quince Pye, or warden pye.
14. Six woodcocks, 3 larded.
15. A standing Tart in puff-paste, preserved fruits, Pippins &c.
16. A dish of Larks.
17. Six dried neats tongues.
19. Powdered Geese.
Despite the raging war and all the deprivation wrought by food-scavenging enemy troops, the people left at home attempted to celebrate the season as best they could. In Georgia, during the deepest days of the conflict, Julia Johnson Fisher wrote of the Christmas of 1864:
“On Christmas day, we fared sumptuously. Mrs. Lynn dined with us and furnished the turkey. We had some chickens and a piece of fresh pork. Gussie had been off ten miles and brought oysters—so we had an oyster stew and chicken salad, minus the greens, potatoes and rice. The turkey was dressed with corn bread. Our dessert was a corn meal pudding…how we did relish it! We are always hungry— hungry the year round, but do not grow fat.”
Others also recorded their sentiments on Christmas day.
Lt. Col. Frederic Cavada, captured at Gettysburg and writing about Christmas 1863 in Libby Prison in Richmond:
The north wind comes reeling in fitful gushes through the iron bars, and jingles a sleighbell in the prisoner’s ear, and puffs in his pale face with a breath suggestively odorous of eggnog….
…Christmas Day! A day which was made for smiles, not sighs – for laughter, not tears – for the hearth, not prison.
In the same year, James Holloway, writing from Dranesville, VA, told his family that
You have no idea how lonesome I feel this day. It’s the first time in my life I’m away from loved ones at home.
Women, both in the North and the South, attempted to make life easier for the men at war. Many started what became known as Sanitary Commissions and raised money for their fighting men. Others wrote the first charity cookbooks, also intended for fund-raising for the troops. The first charitable cookbook likely was “A Poetical Cook-Book,” published in 1864, according to American culinary history expert Jan Longone. (Others suggest that The Carolina Housewife, published in 1855, might really be the first cookbook written to benefit charity.)
When I wrote the following pages, some years back at Oak Lodge, as a pastime, I did not think it would be of service to my fellow-creatures, for our suffering soldiers, the sick, wounded, and needy, who have so nobly fought our country’s cause, to maintain the flag of our great Republic, and to prove among Nations that a Free Republic is not a myth. With these few words I dedicate this book to the Sanitary Fair to be held in Philadelphia, June, 1864. (Maria Moss, The Poetical Cook-Book)
And such female luminaries as Mary Lincoln, the wife of Abraham Lincoln the U.S. president, organized food to be donated to military hospitals at Christmas. For the Christmas of 1862, after the battle of Fredericksburg, she scrounged up some duck, turkey, chickens, ham, and fresh apples.
The Civil War changed the United States in so many ways, the celebration of Christmas being only one of them.*
For further reading:
America’s Charitable Cooks: A Bibliography of Fund-raising Cook Books Published in the United States (1861-1915), by Margaret Cook (1971)
A Poetical Cook-Book (Dodo Press), by Maria J. Moss (1864, reprint, 2008)
We Were Marching on Christmas Day A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War, by Kevin Rawlings (1996)
Four Centuries of Virginia Christmas, by Mary M. Theobald and Libbie Hodges Oliver (2000)
* Just about every family suffered some sort of loss at the time. My own great-great-grandfather died at Vicksburg, Mississippi in 1863, leaving a wife and four children in Avoca, Wisconsin. His oldest son, my great-grandfather, was eight at the time.
© 2009 C. Bertelsen