Alexandria History

How American Christmas Was Changed by The Civil War

A drawing by Edwin Forbes in the Library of Congress collection titled “Christmas Dinner: A Scene on the Outer Picket Line.” (Photos courtesy of OHA)

Alexandria, VA – The American Civil War standardized the concept of what an American Christmas should be. Much like how concepts of time-keeping and canned food were changed and made uniform by the Union Army, a new idea of Christmas tradition took hold in the post-1861 United States.

The widespread use of Thomas Nast images of Santa Claus and the adaptations soldiers made to accommodate their surroundings and their fellow soldiers gave them, many of whom were recent arrivals in the United States, a template for a standardized celebration of the holiday. In some parts of the country, a very strictly religious holiday began to represent a time of laughter, of community that wasn’t necessarily restricted to family, and of gift-giving that evolved by the mid-20th Century to a more commercial concept of the holiday.

Thomas Nast first published an illustration of his interpretation of Santa Claus in the winter of 1862 for Harper’s Weekly. The depictions of a jolly gift-bringer were so successful that President Abraham Lincoln once mused that Nast’s depictions of the war and his annual tradition of drawing Santa Claus were “the best recruiting sergeant the North ever had.” An article in the December 26, 1863 edition of Harper’s (with the cover illustration by Nast of Santa Claus visiting soldiers in camp) reasoned:

“Ought it not be a merry Christmas? Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households; even while the war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled – ought it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?”

Nast continued to build his image of Santa Claus after the war, including the residence at the North Pole in 1866. Illustrations of the workshop and the Naughty and Nice lists followed in later years.

Thanks to letters they wrote to their families, we have records of how some soldiers stationed in or near Alexandria during the war experienced the holiday.

Alfred Bellard of the 5th New Jersey Infantry was camped south of Alexandria on the Potomac when he wrote about his 1861 Christmas (from Gone for a Soldier: The Civil War Memoirs of Alfred Bellard):

“On Christmas Day, Co. H of our Reg. were well supplied with good things as their friends had sent them about 18 boxes containing plenty of poultry and various other good things, making mouths of the less fortunate companys water. As I received a box myself about this time it did not affect me quite so bad as some of the rest. In order to make it look much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in front of our tent, decked off with hardtack and pork, in lieu of cakes, oranges, etc. Our band of 15 pieces arrived about the time and the boys were highly elated at the prospect of plenty of music.”

Frederick Pettit, 100th Pennsylvania Infantry, 1863 wrote his family (from The Civil War Letters of Corporal Frederick Pettit):

“Perhaps you would like to know how we are spending our Christmas in the army. Last night I was on picket and caught a bad cold and as you may suppose do not feel very funny. Last year I think I told you I had a mess of beans and pork for Christmas dinner. This year I am not so fortunate. We have been furnished nothing but a small piece of boiled beef. But our sutler came up last night and we obtained a few crackers, a little cheese, and butter. But what do you think the price is? Crackers 50 cts. per lb., cheese 50 cts. per lb., and butter 80 cts. At these rates you can easily see what a dinner cost us.”

This image by Thomas Nast appeared in an 1863 Harper’s Weekly.

Sutlers were civilian merchants who made their living selling merchandise to the military, or soldiers, often following the movement of particular units.

Readers can learn more about Christmas and the Civil War on Saturday, December 11, at Fort Ward Museum and Historic Site. The program will feature a Civil War-era Union Santa Claus (based on an 1863 cover of Harper’s Weekly by artist Thomas Nast) who will interact with the public, welcome children to the reconstructed Officers’ Hut, and visit soldiers in camp.

Reenactors will interpret army life in winter camps decorated for the season, celebrate by opening Christmas boxes from home, sing carols of the period around the campfire, and prepare holiday meals. The museum will be decorated with festive greenery and a Victorian parlor tree. The program offers soldier-led tours of the historic fort, and children can make a Christmas card or ornament. A variety of Civil War books and stocking stuffers” are available in the museum shop.

For more information about this program, please call 703.746.4848, or visit

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