Thomas Nast’s Divided Christmas

Detail from Nast’s “Christmas Eve” (full image appears after the break)

On this day in 1863 Thomas Nast’s Christmas Eve forced the readers of Harper’s Weekly to confront the hardships of a war-torn wintry season. Though drawn in 1862, the image occupied a double-page spread in the January 3, 1863 edition of the popular illustrated newspaper. In a sentimental and poignant illustration, Nast featured juxtaposed scenes relating to the theme of Christmas during wartime. Santa Claus delivers presents to the folks at home and men at the front, soldiers trudge through the snow, ships battle against heavy gales, and military graves lie flanked by U.S. flags.

Christmas Eve is noted to be one of the earliest American illustrations bearing imagery relating to the popular and recognisable traditions of Christmas. But the most apparent theme that emerges from this picture is that of separation and loss. The image reflects on the sacrifices of the ordinary agents of an internal conflict during a time meant for peace and familial intimacy.

Thomas Nast, Christmas Eve, 1862, wood engraving on paper, Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

At the forefront of the illustration are two detached spheres. One represents the domestic household, the other the military picket line. Though in close proximity to one another, they remain divided. In the domestic scene a woman kneels with her hands clasped together as she gazes out of her window into the night sky. Her two children sleep serenely behind her. To her right, the martial scene exhibits a Federal soldier wrapped in his greatcoat and hunched over a small fire as two others stand on guard in the distance. The women looks up and out of the window, the man stares down, but each gaze misses the other.

We assume they are husband and wife, father and children, but separated by the man’s devotion to his country. Nast illustrates the taint of conflict on this American Christmas in defiance of conventional notions of familial affection so prominent in festive imagery. But Nast was an ardent Unionist, propelled by his own strident political outlook.[i] Christmas Eve simultaneously mourns the dominance of the war over American cultural traditions whilst exhibiting this separation and loss as a necessity for the preservation of the Union.

The two spheres barely touch, but there remains a subtle suggestion of connectedness in each. In the domestic household a framed photograph of the soldier hangs over the children’s bed, allowing him to watch over his distant home-circle. The absent solder gazes longingly into a photographic case bearing the images of his wife and children. Nast recognises the photograph as a means to bridge the geographical and emotional divide forced upon families by wartime necessities. Though an alignment of vision does not exist in the image, should either figure enter the other’s sphere their physical posturing would cause them to embrace.

The theme of separation was not lost on those who viewed the illustration. Harper’s travelled fast. Major papers from New York were available to the armies in Virginia a day or two after publication.[ii] One colonel wept as he unfolded the paper: “It was only a picture, but I couldn’t help it.” Letters of heartfelt thanks flooded into Harper’s office from all over the North.[iii] John Beatty of the 3rd Ohio wrote in his diary:

The picture… will bring tears to the eyes of many a poor fellow shivering over the campfire this winter season. The children in the crib, the stockings in which Santa Clause deposits his treasures, recall the pleasantest night of the year.[iv]

Beatty’s observations of the image note the “poor” soldier’s separation from the pleasantness of the holiday. The absent soldier endures unfamiliar circumstances as he struggles in wintry conditions, whilst the home-circle are left to celebrate Christmas without the presence of the head of their family.

Winslow Homer, News from the War, wood engraving on paper, Harper’s Weekly, June 14, 1862, courtesy of The Art Institute of Chicago. Homer’s image exhibits the significance of newspapers and letters to Americans in wartime.

The subtle focus on photographs reveals the importance of photographic portraiture to Americans during the Civil War. They figured as powerful objects of emotion, intimacy, and memory in mid-nineteenth century American social culture. Photographs are simultaneously “a pseudo-presence and a token of absence.” Soldiers and civilians employed photographs to “contact or lay claim to another reality.”[v]

In Christmas Eve the soldier engages with the photographs of his family in order to fantasise about a reality far removed from his own. The image of the soldier secured in the domestic sphere retains the hope that this actuality remains; that the image is an authentic miniature of an on-going reality. In confrontation to the separation experienced by soldiers and civilians, photographs are employed to retain a tangible and visual connection between the geographical divides.

But it is the graves that lie at the bottom of Christmas Eve that reveal war’s most painful cost. Though separation was a difficult burden to bear, Nast’s characters are fortunate aside the soldier’s buried comrades. By the year’s close, northerners had little to celebrate when contemplating 1862. The slaughters at Shiloh and Antietam had shaken the northern population. Less than a month before the publication of the image, thousands of northern men lay dead and wounded before Marye’s Heights at Fredericksburg.

Nast’s illustration reached the masses in the first days of 1863. Federal soldiers dug fresh graves for the dead of Stones River as readers opened their New Years’ copies of Harper’s. Nast urged northerners to consider their sacrifices and their willingness to give more to the cause. Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Chickamauga would confirm that devotion.

[i] Ross Barrett, ‘Trouble on the Home Front: Art, Democracy, and Disorder during the Civil War,’ Rendering Violence: Riots, Strikes, and Upheaval in Nineteenth-Century American Art (University of California Press: Oakland, CA, 2014), p. 105

[ii] James M. McPherson, ‘“Spend Much Time in Reading the Daily Papers”’: The Press and Army Morale in the Civil War,’ This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War (Oxford University Press: New York, NY, 2007), p. 155

[iii] William F. Thompson, The Image of War: The Pictorial Reporting of the American Civil War (Louisiana State University Press: Baton Rouge, LA, 1994), p. 91

[iv] John Beatty, The Citizen-Soldier: Or, Memoirs of a Volunteer (Wilstach, Baldwin & Co.: Cincinnati, OH, 1879), p. 214

[v] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Penguin, 1979), p. 16

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