Given the fact that the Civil War fundamentally altered our nation in so many ways, it is not surprising that the celebration of Christmas was also deeply affected by that conflict.
In early America there was a deep distrust of the holiday in some quarters. The Puritans, in particular, did not like all the merrymaking and raucous celebrations which accompanied Christmas in those days– a definite turnoff to the dour Puritans. The holiday was also linked, in their minds, with the elaborate religious ceremonies of Roman Catholicism–which they had a passionate hatred of. Santa Claus was the anti-Christ in the Puritan view of things. The Puritans believed people should work on Christmas Day and not engage in frivolity and intoxication. The Puritans actually outlawed Christmas, Easter and that ever popular holiday, Whitsuntide.
Although early the Puritan’s theocratic Socialism gradually gave way to a form of self-righteous Capitalism, New England continued to look down on the holiday until the Civil War. Even after the war, public school children were forced to go to school on Christmas in Boston.
Other groups, however, were not so sour about the holiday. Not only Catholics, but Anglicans and Lutherans joyfully celebrated it 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. Of course the nineteenth century was also the age of romanticism and as people became more and more sentimental, the Christmas celebration of hearth, home and family was a perfect fit for this zeitgeist and the season grew into something far more than a religious celebration of the birth of the Christ child.
It actually wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas became an official Federal holiday—thanks to President Ulysses S. Grant, who had in mind creating a national holiday that would help unite a still divided nation.
During the war, both sides had celebrated the holiday and the poignancy of families separated by war gave Christmas even more importance than ever before. President Grant knew only too well what it had meant to the soldiers in the field and their families at home. In trying to unite a nation still deeply divided by the war and its aftermath, Grant knew that Christmas was something everyone could agree on.
So, while Abraham Lincoln was responsible for Thanksgiving as an official American holiday, 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 is Ambrose Bierce and the Period of Honorable Strife, published by University of Tennessee Press and chronicling the famous authors wartime service with the Army of the Cumberland and the 9th Indiana.