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1864 December 24: Christmas in 1864

December 25, 2014

Christmas in 1864 seems a little cheerier than earlier Civil War years.

From The Prescott Journal, December 24, 1864:

CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR.—The Editor of the Hudson Times thus pleasantly writes, and we adopt his language as our own :

CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR.—Dear Readers, a “Merry Christmas” and a “Happy New Year” to you all again.

One year ago, surrounded by these same dingy walls, and sitting in this same easy chair, we wrote of Christmas and New Year, with their joys and festivities—of the marvelous Santa Claus, with his reindeer team, and the eager, wondering children—of little stockings filled with all sorts of dainty things, and the eyes that sparkled as little hands drew out the treasures—of all the terrible war red with blood and fiercer than fire, that was crimsoning and consuming the land, and to-day, again before laying aside the pen and scissors for a week of holiday, we renew the greeting.

I this brief year just closing, many have been the changes, although we hardly note them. We have changed ourselves, writer and reader, all have changed ;  and as we pause here upon the threshold of the New Year, let each for himself look back over his shoulders upon the past, and prepare for the duties of the future.

Had we time and space, we would gladly review the most important events of the year and weave pleasant fancies of future joys, but the Printer’s call for “copy” cuts us short, and in this last word of the year we say with PRENTICE¹ :

.                                                                       .“Tis a time
For memory and for tears. Within the deep
Still chambers of the heart, a spectre dim,
Whose tones are like the wizard voice of Time,
Heard from the tomb of ages, points its cold
Solemn fingers to the beautiful
And holy visions that have passed away,
And left no shadow of their loveliness
On the dead waste of life. That spectre lifts
The coffin-lid of Hope, and Joy, and Love,
And, bending mournfully above the pale,
Sweet forms that slumber there, scatters dead flowers
O’er what has passed to nothingness.

.                                                                        .The year
Has gone, and with it many a glorious throng
Of happy dreams. Its mask is on each brow,
Its shadow in each heart. In its swift course,
It waved its sceptre o’er the beautiful—
And they are not. It laid its pallid hand
Upon the strong man,—and the haughty form
Is fallen, and the flashing eye is dim.
It trod the hall of revelry, where thronged
The bright and joyous,—and the tearful wail
Of stricken ones, is heard where erst the song
And reckless shout resounded.”

Thomas Nast's 1864 Christmas centerfold for "Harper's Weekly"

Thomas Nast’s 1864 Christmas centerfold for “Harper’s Weekly”²

From Harper’s Weekly, December 24, 1864:

“SATURDAY, DECEMBER 31, 1864. CHRISTMAS.  It is a merry Christmas although the cloud of war yet rests upon the land. It is merry because the great gale if victory parts the cloud, and gives glimpses of the heaven of peace beyond. It is merry because every man feels now that the people are able to subdue the rebellion; and merriest of all because they have just declared that they will do it, and show from the Mississippi to the sea that they are doing it. “

“Yet now, as from the beginning of the war, the purpose of the country is only peace and good will to all men. It has learned that a peace which is simply unquestioning submission to the meanest injustice is only more fearful war. Neither baseness nor cowardice are peace, except as death is. War is sorrowful, but there is one thing infinitely more horrible than the worst horrors of war, and that is the feeling that nothing is worth fighting for, and the blindness which can not see that war is often the safest, surest, shortest, and least bloody way of peace.”

“More truly than ever before the legend of this country is good will to all men. If it will hold fast to it peace is forever secure. The strongest and most unfailing force in the world is an idea. The most visionary and impracticable of men is he who sneers at ideas. If this  famously practical people had hitherto believed in principles it would have had no civil war.  If it will only cleave hereafter to the principles it now acknowledges it will never have war again. It is bullies and bad men who are always fighting. It is the just men who are at peace.”

“Today, then, under the Christmas evergreen, the country asks only for peace, and breathes only good will to all men. Despite the sharp war, its bountiful feast is spread. It stands, as Mr. Nast represents in the large picture in today’s number, holding the door open and welcome the rebellious children back to the family banquet. It does not forget one of their crimes. It remembers the enormity of their attempt. It will take a good care that the root of bitterness is destroyed forever, and that the peace of the household shall be henceforth secure. But it asks what it can command. It invites where it can enforce. It says now, as it has said from the beginning, ‘Submit to the laws made by all for the common welfare, and there will be no more war.”³

“Nor does that country for a moment forget the sad and solitary hearts and hearths upon which the light of the holy season shines. It is a grief too deep for anger, and it requires that such sorrow as this Christmas sun beholds shall be made impossible hereafter. They rest their labors, the young and brave who have made this country better worth living in. The hearts that are broken with those completed lives time will soothe, but can never wholly heal. Yet never did seed sown more surely grow and flower and crown the happy harvest home than those precious lives. In a deeper national faith, in a purer national purpose, in soberer, simpler, nobler individual lives the harvest of that heroism shall be seen.”

“‘Come home come home, then,’ says the mother. ‘While you refuse you shall be scourged with fire. I have no anger. Your crime grew because I suffered it to grow. I have no anger, for in the heart’s-blood of my darlings my sin is washed away. I ask for peace, I breathe only good will. But Peace you have learned that I mean to.’”

"Christmas Morning," the cover of the December 31, 1864, "Harper's Weekly"

“Christmas Morning,” the cover of the December 31, 1864, “Harper’s Weekly”³

1.  This is the middle portion of a poem called “Close of the Year,” by George Dennison Prentice (1802-1870), who was a lawyer and a newspaper editor (New England Weekly Review, Louisville Journal). His editorials in the Journal supported the Know-Nothing Party, and were pro-slavery, anti-Catholic, and anti-foreigner. In 1864 he created the famous “Sue Mundy” guerrilla character to mock the incompetence of Union General Stephen G. Burbridge, then military commander of Kentucky.
2.  “The Union Christmas Dinner: Peace on Earth and Good Will Toward Men,” by Thomas Nast, reflects the nation’s hopes that the Civil War will end soon. Nast shows Abraham Lincoln, holding out a hand of friendship to the South, opening the door to a large banquet hall and inviting hungry rebels in from the cold. The large central image is surrounded by small vignettes; the lower left one showing Robert E. Lee’s “Unconditional Surrender” to Ulysses S. Grant, simply a hope at this time but in four months it would be a reality. The University of Wisconsin-River Falls’ Chalmer Davee Library has microfilm copies of Harper’s Weekly for 1858-1865 (UWRF online catalog).
3.  “Christmas Morning” was the cover of the December 31, 1864, issue of Harper’s Weekly. It portrays a family of children enjoying their presents while their parents look on from the doorway. One boy, dressed as a soldier and playing with a toy sword, is the only reminder that the country was still embroiled in the Civil War.

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