Christmas is cancelled; the Yanks captured Santa: Christmas in the Antebellum and Civil War-era South

When we think of traditional Christmases, we often picture the Victorian era, with its mistletoe, decorated Christmas trees, and carolers. Not all Victorian-era people were gung-ho about Christmas, though, as evidenced by The Journals of David Golightly Harris, 1855-1870 (edited by Philip N. Racine, University of Tennessee Press, 1997). These journals are a great resource about the life of a middling, slave-holding Southerner before, during, and after the Civil War, even including his wife’s voice as she keeps records for him while he’s fighting. It also gives some glimpses into the brutal lives of slaves. Amidst all this, we learn about Christmas traditions south of the Mason-Dixon line.

Some of the traditions are familiar to us. Santa Claus brings presents to the children, and friends and families gather for large Christmas dinners. It’s also a time of reflection on the past. Harris mentions grog and whiskey as part of the festivities, which may or may not resonate with modern Christmas celebrants. There’s no mention of Christmas trees or caroling.

More unusual Christmas traditions mentioned by Harris include fox hunting, firecrackers, and shooting off guns. They also held “egg-nogs,” which seem to have involved making and consuming the drink with groups of friends. The festivities lasted for several days, usually until the 28th, and Harris repeats a folk belief that the weather in the twelve days between Christmas and “old Christmas” (Twelfth Night) portends the weather in the years to come. The slaves got time off as well (unfortunately, we don’t hear much about how they celebrated), leading to Harris to grumble about having to wait on himself. In fact, Harris thinks the Christmas holiday is dying out—perhaps not as vibrant as he remembers it as a child—and since he finds it dull and tiresome, he doesn’t seem to regret its demise in the Antebellum years.

His attitude toward Christmas changes during and after the war. He still believes it’s a fading holiday, but he is sorry to think it will soon be gone. Santa brings no presents to the children in the deepest part of the war (perhaps none were to be had), and Harris hints that they told the children that the Yankees captured Santa and his presents. Fewer people came to visit and there was less to eat. The older people turned reflective in the face of death and deprivation, but the children still played and found ways to enjoy themselves, showing that some things about human nature change very little over time.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Gwynneth says:

    He was sure wrong about it being a fading holiday! I agree with you about human nature as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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