1862 Christmas: “Despite the Present Distress”

While soldiers marched toward their winter camping ground and the air filled with the hollow sound of axes cutting trees to construct huts, Northern cities resounded with other sounds. Union soldiers along the banks of the Rappahannock were acutely aware of the losses they had suffered at the battle of Fredericksburg, pushed into battle by generals in a quest for still unreachable victory. Confederate soldiers at least had the satisfaction of knowing they had won the battle, forcing their enemy back across the river and denying him any further advance on Richmond that year. For many regiments of the losses of the year and particularly the Fredericksburg battle could be seen at every turn—the thinned ranks of roll call, the messmates gone from the fireside. Similarly, newspapers with the long lists of casualty names carried to the homefront the cost of war. Chairs would be empty around many a Christmas table that year or perhaps forever. 

In New York City, Maria Lydig Daly – wife of a prominent judge – kept a diary about her observations of society, the war, and politics. With no children to look after, she found herself in a unique social position—more free to converse, visit, and observe. Some of her diary notes from December 1862 offers an opportunity to consider the changing role of Christmas during the American Civil War, particularly that year.

(Photograph from Culpeper Star-Exponent, 2017).

On December 14, 1862, Daly wrote: “Today the papers say a battle is raging at Fredericksburg. It began yesterday and at night neither side had the advantage. It was to begin at daylight again this morning. God help us and protect my brother!” (pages 206-207)

It was six days before she wrote again, an irregular break in her journaling. She explained her reason for not writing in the opening lines of the December 20, 1862, entry: 

I have had no heart to write. Since I opened my diary last the battle of Fredericksburg has occurred and our repulse with the loss of 14,000 killed, wounded, and missing. Burnside hoped to surprise the enemy, but our dilatory government officials kept his bridges and supplies so long behindhand they had two weeks to fortify themselves. Poor Burnside will therefore have to suffer.

It is surprising how people spend despite the present distress. The artists say they have never been so busy. Bierstadt is even offered more than he has asked for his pictures, and every place of amusement is crowded…. (208-209)

Here is a glimpse of a woman keenly aware of the losses from the battle of Fredericksburg and feeling at odds with the whirling bustle and consumerism of the city around her. In her diary, Daly reports these rather matter-of-factly and without much judgment. Perhaps she could not quite make sense of it all, but it struck her as noteworthy and surprising. 

Many of the Christmas traditions cherished in our own times, including Santa Claus and exchanging elaborate gifts, come out of the Civil War era. It is interesting to note how in the United States the Civil War seems to have served as a type of catalyst toward the materialism of Christmas. The holiday shifted away from an emphasis on religious services to “a holiday for the children” and the family. A season tingled with a magical sense of giving and getting. 

Certainly other social factors were at work, including changes in jobs/wages, shifting views of childhood, and changing thoughts about organized religion. However, perhaps an effort to escape—or at least distract—from the horrors and loss on the battlefields prompted a renewed and hurried focus on Christmas materialism. 

Daly’s juxtaposition of the battle of Fredericksburg and then the comment that the shops were full of people and places of amusement were crowded suggests that perhaps the New York City upper and middle class homefront at least were trying to bury their fears and sadness in a flurry of Christmas shopping and entertainment. Distractionism at its finest. 

Perhaps there are other shifts in American Christmas culture in the process or wake of war and loss. A new round of now-traditions swept through the country during and immediately after World War II. Again, the war can be solely credited, but Americans once again seemed willing to enter into a material response with their money in a reaction to years of difficulty. 

Is it possible that we are living through another shift in American Christmas culture? Specifically, one prompted by a reaction to the global pandemic and other distressing events of the past two years. It’s too soon to tell, but there may be some signs similar to the the 1860’s and the 1950’s. Time will tell if Covid-19 transformed Christmas once again and if for better or worse according to “traditionalists.”

While Daly’s observation cannot be taken as an example of a reaction of all people in the north to the battle of Fredericksburg and Christmas, she offers an interesting contrast. However, viewed against the larger cultural shift in the “keeping of Christmas,” perhaps it is accurate to view the American Civil War as an agent of change, hurrying the evolution of American Christmas. 


Daly, Maria Lydig, edited by Harold Earl Hammond. Diary of a Union Lady, 1861-1865. (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln: 1962).

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