Christmas during the 1860s was not unlike the holidays we know and love. However, there was always the ever present damper over families, knowing their loved ones were away fighting in another state. I imagine this is much the same for soldiers nowadays, who will not be able to be with their families for Christmas.
Many of the traditions we have in place (trees, Santa, gifts) were commonplace in the homes, however, some Southern families had to make excuses that Santa might not get through the blockades surrounding Southern ports.
The soldiers made the best of the holidays, with one describing how they decorated a small tree with hard tack and salt pork, instead of cakes and oranges. Letters home were often sparse in the latter years of the war, but some soldiers made journal entries, wishing their families the best of the holidays.
In some camps, the Yankee soldiers received visits from President Lincoln, some even fortunate enough to be gifted a parcel from Tad Lincoln.
Many soldiers, as well as their families, sang carols. The names will be recognizable to us today– “Deck the Halls,” “Oh Come All Ye Faithful,” and Mendelssohn’s “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” (1840), are still sung today. American musical contributions to the season include: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” (1850), “Jingle Bells” (1857), “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (1857) ,and “Up on the Housetop” (1860).
Christmas cards were not that common at the time, but would become more popular in the 1870s.
Regardless, it was often a sad time of year, as families never knew if their menfolk would be coming home.
Have a very happy holiday season!