This holiday season I came across two Christmas entries in two very different civilian journals. One, tinged with reflective sadness, offers the words of a Virginian girl who has seen war and lost a loved one in the conflict but still tries to make a joyous moment for her younger siblings. The other, filled with a little humor and irony, gives a reminder that even 155 years ago family gatherings could have those moments and that uncle.
Read together, these women’s voices allow a glimpse into Christmas 1863 on the homefronts. Certainly they do not cover every holiday happening, but they lift the parlor curtain and reveal the feelings, hopes, Christmas feasts, and stockings by the fireplace for some historical festive reading.
Lucy Rebecca Buck lived near Front Royal, Virginia, southeast of Winchester and at the northern end of Luray Valley. Troops – both blue and gray – had routinely marched passed Bel Air (the family home) that year, and her family had interacted with officers and men of both sides. Lucy’s brother served in the Confederacy and a cousin she had been very close to had already died in the war by December 1863. As the oldest child in her family, Lucy spent much time looking after her younger siblings and her Christmas entries show her determination to give the children a real holiday, despite the dreary winter and tragedy of war.
December 24, 1863
…Tonight got the children washed and put to bed and after they went to sleep filled the stockings and boiled some molasses for taffy. Father attempted to attend to the boiling but after waiting till ten o’clock he gave it up in despair and left Grandma, Ma and me alone in our glory. Did not get through till after twelve o’clock. Poor children! I contrast their limited means of enjoyment now with our former happy life and it makes me sad.
Ah! Dear, tomorrow will be a lonely, dreary day for me with none of the dear ones we were expecting – not even Nellie and Laura. There are only five pairs of stockings over the fireplace tonight and there are five of our house circle absent – five hearts no doubt turning longingly this way tonight. God bless them! One of the very loneliest nights I ever saw.
December 25, 1863
Children up very early. A lovely day clear and bright. Helped the children with the contents of their stockings and then proceeded to clean up. Dressed after breakfast and went off upstairs to take a good cry for my heart was full of sad and pleasant thoughts and memories and I was so lonely – missed the dear absentees. Felt better after crying awhile and went downstairs with Ma and Grandma. Uncle Newton sick. Father went out to see him. Charlie Buck spent an hour or so with us. Cheery boy that he is – tried to play and sing for him but had to give over the attempts in despair. Then Uncle John came. He was not well and lay down. Then Uncle Tom who remained to eat our orthodox turkey and mince pies. Wonder where the poor boys got their Christmas dinners this year or if they had any poor fellows?
Frank [the baby] fretful and sleepy this evening and I felt really worn out. At twilight when Ma and Father were talking by the firelight – I laid on the bedside and thought, thought and cried. Ah the sad, sad changes that are more and more apparent every year! how much they depress me, how much less I feel to bear them – our dear lost Walter! [cousin] Let the seasons roll around as they will, he will never come to make glad the festive times for us. And yet ’tis wrong to grieve thus when we have so much more to be thankful for than to complain of. Our other dear ones are spared to us. I think how this house might now be shrouded in sorrow as thousands and thousands of Southern homes are – how our hearts might be writhing in anguish had a hostile bullet laid low our darling Irvie [brother] in that last miserable battle. …think of the sad households there and feel that we are blessed even more than we could reasonably hope for…
Up north in New York City, Maria Lydig Daly spent a very different holiday. Her husband served as a prominent judge, and the Dalys were part of the upper society circle in the city. Having just recovered from and illness in time for Christmas, Mrs. Daly’s holiday seems low-key. However, New Year’s Day was the traditional holiday that they opened their home for a grand reception of friends and family – seventy people or more!
For the Dalys, Christmas offered “family time,” but apparently the presence of some family members did not make the merriest moments. Still, Maria Daly reflects on her blessings and then gives a view into the less than ideal holiday moments that occurred in decades past.
December 26, 1863
I have been unwell and confined to my room. Christmas I left the house for the first time in ten weeks and dined in Laight Street. Today I have taken a walk in the open air on the back piazza and hope I shall be able to go about soon as usual. The Judge has been very kind and indulgent. Has anyone so good a husband as I have, or so loving a one? We have been eight years married, and he is the same now as on our wedding day. May God give me grace to keep and deserve his continued affection.
December 29, 1863
Christmas was usually pleasant, not withstanding the presence of [Uncle] Lydig Suydam, whose hypocritical face always acts as a wet blanket upon any please to the Judge. Lydig Suydam is always bringing up unpleasant memories. Father seems to think Lydig much attached to him, but I do not know how he has ever shown it except in riding Father’s horses, breaking his wagons, and offering to go Savannah with him [before the war] when Father was unwell. Lydig made a great merit of this, telling Maggie (who likewise went on the most disinterested principles, although I would like to have gone) that he wanted a sea voyage because he was suffering with dyspepsia. Father, the poor, deluded, grateful soul, paid all Lydig’s expenses to Savannah and back again in consequence of his disinterestedness. Maggie said I should not go as I was stronger than she, and she thought the sea would make her stout again. So she likewise went from the purest filial devotion, whilst I, from choice of course, remained at home alone to take care of the younger children. Which was the pleasanter duty? Who was the most disinterested?…
On Christmas this year we had some speeches. Mr. Weston, the two Judges, and Uncle Lydig rose to answer. Phil was affectionately remembered.
Christmas 1863 on the homefront offered the opportunity to remember. To remember absent family members or remember what those present family members had done. One woman living in the path of war reflected on loss and still tried to make a special holiday. One woman residing far from the theaters of war remembered her blessings and tried to deal with “that uncle” on December 25th. Wherever they lived and however they celebrated Christmas, homefront civilians’ celebrations often revolved around family and those memorable moments of stockings hung by the fireplace or Christmas dinners with everyone gathered round… but a few vacant chairs reminding keeping the war ever-present in their minds.