In search of the Christmas tree in the Civil War era home

Posted on December 20, 2008 by


Recently, while developing a two-part article for my newspaper column, I began thinking about our cultural understandings (or misunderstandings) of how the Christmas tree has developed in our historical memory. In terms of Christmas trees at the time of the Civil War, I was thinking specifically about the Christmas tree scenes from Gods & Generals. Was the Christmas tree really such a standard feature in Civil War-era households?

It’s difficult to even begin to approach the subject without understanding the origins of the Christmas tree in modern Christian practice. Ultimately, it seems that all roads lead back to Germany. There are the stories of St. Boniface and the stories of Martin Luther.. and then there are various mergings of different stories making an incredibly long line of mythology (my search of the Web resulted in all sorts of mix-matched stories). Then, there are the stories of the introduction of the Christmas tree in the mid 1800s through the English court via Prince Albert, who happened to be… German (forget the fact that the Hanover line tried to introduce it for years, Prince Albert seemed to finally pull it off as a cultural item of interest in the 1800s).

I know that a search of the Staunton and Augusta newspapers at the Valley of the Shadow site reveals not one mention of a Christmas tree until 1869! On the other hand, there are a few passing entries in the Richmond Daily Dispatch about Christmas trees in 1861, 1862, and 1865.

So, when it comes to the Civil War, was the Christmas tree really a dominant feature of the American home or have we superimposed our ideas of its existance in the Civil War era home?

By the way, despite the presense of “virtual snow” on Harry’s site, I’m resisting the use of the WordPress snowfall in posts this week. I’d like to add it to this Christmas tree scene, but I’m hoping to hold out until I actually see snow this month…  but, I may fold on that and add snow for Christmas, even if I don’t see it here in the Valley!

Oh… and for the curious, here is a link to an article from 1998 written by Kevin Rawlings for Civil War Times about Christmas during the Civil War. Though the prevalence of the Christmas tree across the country is not examined, the use of Christmas trees is discussed a bit on Page 3.