Τhe Civil War fundamentally altered our nation in many, many ways. It is not surprising, therefore, that the manner in which we celebrate Christmas was also deeply affected by that great conflict.
It may seem odd to many today, but in early America there was a deep distrust of the holiday of Christmas by some of our ancestors. The Puritans, in particular, did not like the merrymaking and raucous celebrations which accompanied Christmas in those days– a definite turnoff to the dour Puritans. Christmas was also linked, in Puritan minds, with the elaborate religious ceremonies of Roman Catholicism–a religion which they harbored a passionate hatred for. In England during the Puritan revolution, Catholic priests were hunted down like animals and tortured to death. Not surprisingly, Santa Claus in the Puritan view of things was equated with the anti-Christ . The Puritans believed people should work on Christmas Day and not engage in frivolity and intoxication. The Puritans outlawed Christmas, Easter and–that ever popular holiday–Whitsuntide.
Although early the Puritan’s early theocratic Socialism gradually gave way to a form of smug, self-righteous Capitalism, New England continued to look down on the holiday until the eve of the Civil War. Even after the war, in Boston public school children continued to be forced to go to school on Christmas .
Other groups, however, were not so sour about the holiday. Not only Catholics, but Anglicans and Lutherans joyfully celebrated the Holy Day holiday and continued to do so when they emigrated to America.
In particular, German immigrants, be they Lutheran or Catholic, had many popular rituals associated with the holiday, rituals which today we take for granted. The nineteenth century was also the age of romanticism and so, influence by the zeitgeist of the era, people became more and more sentimental. The Christmas celebration of hearth, home and family was a perfect fit for the spirit of the age and the season evolved into from a religious celebration about the birth of the Christ child to a quite secular celebration .
It actually wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas became an official Federal holiday. This was thanks to President Ulysses S. Grant, who had in mind creating a national holiday that he hoped would help unite a still divided nation and melt the strong bitterness that still dwelt in the land.
During the war, both sides had celebrated the holiday in their own ways. The poignancy of families separated by war gave Christmas even more importance than ever before. President Grant knew only too well what the holday had meant to the soldiers in the field and their families at home. In trying to unite a nation still deeply divided by the tragedy of war and its often violent aftermath, Grant knew that Christmas was something everyone in all regions of the nation come together about.
So, while Abraham Lincoln was responsible for Thanksgiving as an official American holiday, (more of that next time) it is to Ulysses Grant that we owe Christmas as the quintessential American celebration.
For more true tales of the Late Unpleasantness, see Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War and The Paranormal Presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Just released, Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, is published by University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the famous authors wartime service with the Army of the Cumberland and the 9th Indiana.
Ghosts and Haunts of the Civil War, true tales of paranormal experiences and uncanny encounters relating to the Late Unpleasantness.