Every year, we enjoy decorating for Christmas, from lights outside to garlands and trees inside. This year, half of the museum is decorated with a Civil War theme. You might think it was obvious, since our museum is about the Civil War, but this is actually the first year we have followed a Civil War theme. In today’s mewsing, we’ll explore some of the traditions that inspired our decorations at Civil War Tails.
Christmas trees were just becoming popular, thanks to Queen Victoria adopting the German tradition. They were not the large trees that we are used to; rather, a Christmas tree in the 1860’s would be smaller and stand on a table in the center of the room. Branches would be cut out until the remaining branches formed layers. Presents were placed on the branches, with larger presents on the table. Presents during the Civil War were often handmade, such as hand-carved toys, cotton or flannel animals, hickory nut and flannel dolls, candied fruits in paper cornucopias, gingerbread cakes, needle cases, or slippers. Of course, because of the war, presents were often scarce, particularly in the South. Mothers in the Confederacy would have to come up with excuses as to why Santa wouldn’t make it to their house for Christmas. Imagine if your mother told you that Santa couldn’t get through the Northern blockade or, even worse, had been shot!
Decorations for the tree were also often handmade. Dried fruit, red bows and ribbons, chains of colored paper, strings of popcorn, and even pinecones were used. Candles would also be used, but they would only be lit on Christmas Day—with a bucket of water kept nearby! Sometimes, families were fortunate enough to have glass ornaments.
Greenery was used to decorate the rest of the rooms and was placed on all the horizontal surfaces, including pictures, window frames, doors, and mantels. Candles could be added to the greenery, particularly in the windows.
Just as it is today, children would hang stockings for Santa to fill. They might even know the story “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” since it was written in the 1820’s. The family could also enjoy carols, such as “Deck the Halls,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “Silent Night,” “What Child is This,” “Away in the Manger,” “Joy to the World,” and “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.” Some specifically American carols were “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “We Three Kings,” and “Up on the Housetop.” However, for all of you who have not sent out Christmas cards yet, it’s okay—cards were popular in Europe but the fad would not take hold in the United States for another decade!
Christmas dinner was as big a deal as it is today, although the war would have caused shortages. Before the war, you might expect to see ham, turkey, oysters, squash, cabbage, potatoes (both white and sweet), carrots, apples, breads, pies, puddings, stuffing, coffee, tea, and of course eggnog—and that’s a partial list!
We had a lot of fun decorating the museum along Civil War-era lines this year, and look forward to doing it again. Perhaps this Mewsing has inspired you to try it next year. It’s not hard. Artificial trees are great at making “layers” of branches. Candles now come with batteries (you just need a bucket of fresh batteries on hand instead of water!). And the kids will enjoy stringing popcorn. Kitty, our Museum Cat, enjoyed finally being allowed to eat popcorn straight out of the big bowl—until she realized it had no butter or salt!
Merry Christmas, everyone!
2 thoughts on “Merry Christmas!”
Thank you for sharing these old-fashioned Christmas facts and pictures of your lovely decorations! I’m the executive director of a post-Civil War Italianate house museum in Henry County, Indiana, the home of General William Grose, built in 1870. Pictures of our tree are on our Facebook page, facebook.com/HenryCountyMuseum. I’ve been pricing battery-operated candles for our tree, but, to cover its’ at least 10-foot height, we’re going to need a blockbuster fundraiser! 🙂
Hi Mandorac, you might consider using wired candles, since in our experience, the batteries will need to be changed frequently, which could become onerous on a 10-foot tree 🙂