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It’s ironic that an act as divisive as the Civil War, would unify the way Americans celebrate Christmas. But, the holiday we know today largely came into existence in and around the war.  


As the nineteenth century began, Christmas wasn't the widely celebrated event we experience today. In Boston, for example, businesses and schools remained open on Christmas day, while churches were closed, a hold over from a Puritan era law declaring the celebration of Christmas an illegal sacrilege.

By mid century, recent holiday tunes like "Benjamin Hamby's "Up On The House Top," and James Lord Pierpont's "Jingle Bells," were popular. As was "Silent Night," first introduced to America just two years before the war began.

Christmas trees - long a German tradition - were just coming into fashion in the U.S.. 
Soldiers erected trees outside their tents, decorated with hard tack pork instead of oranges, cakes and candles. 

And missing the first family tree, was a common lament in letters home from soldiers.
Since Clement Moore's 1822 poem "T'was The Night Before Christmas," children had been expecting a visit from St. Nick, but the image of the jolly fat man, with the pipe and beard that we know today, was created during the war - as propaganda.

Thomas Nast, the political cartoonist who gave America the Democratic Donkey, and the Republican Elephant, also gave us  Santa Claus, on the cover of Harpers Weekly. 

A close look at that first drawing reveals the jolly old elf, to be a Union supporter. He’s clad in stars and stripes, and holding a puppet called "Jeff" dancing from the end of a noose. Jeff of course referred to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy.


Another of Nast's wartime images was more subtle. Instead of a sack of toys, Santa has a military backpack, a Union Army belt with a sword slung over his arm, and he's holding a Trojan horse.


And while politicizing Christmas, didn't end with the war, eventually Thomas Nast felt the need to render Santa Claus apolitical. 

In the late nineteenth century, he decided that the jolly old elf wasn't the sole property of the Union after all, but came from the north pole, a place no country could ever again, claim as their own.


In an effort to draw the divided nation together, President Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday in 1870.

And for the first time in American history, we all began celebrating Christmas as one.






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