Holidays Past: A Bartow Christmas in the Civil War Era

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Carolers in period costume enliven Bartow-Pell’s holiday festivities at our annual Candlelight Tours.

The year is 1860, and it’s Christmastime at the Bartow estate. The family’s home is in the country, but New York City, with all of its holiday temptations, is nearby. The start of the Civil War is just a few months away.

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Eastman Johnson (1824–1906). Christmas-Time, The Blodgett Family, 1864. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Whitney Blodgett, 1983, 1983.486. http://www.metmuseum.org

Most of the Bartow children—now adults and teenagers—were still living at the mansion with their parents. The eldest, George, was thirty-two, and the youngest, Theodoret, was fourteen. Robert Erskine and Reginald Heber were students at Columbia College. Two Bartow daughters were also at home—Henrietta, seventeen, and Clarina, twenty-two, who would become a bride within the year. Their thirty-year-old sister, Catharine, and her husband, the Reverend Henry E. Duncan, lived in Fishkill with their four young children. Duncan’s duties as rector at St. Anna’s Church in Fishkill Landing (now Beacon) would have kept their family in Dutchess County for the holidays. Uncle William Augustus Bartow (Robert Bartow’s brother) and his family lived nearby in East Fishkill.

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Holiday trees at BPMM celebrate the past, present, and future.

Like many Americans in the 1860s, the Bartow family probably had a Christmas tree, a custom that had been introduced from England and Germany and had recently become wildly popular here. In 1850, the delights of the Christmas tree were widely publicized in the United States through an engraving published by Godey’s Lady’s Book that was adapted from a British version printed in the Illustrated London News in 1848. The earlier engraving depicted Queen Victoria and her German-born consort, Prince Albert, gathered around a decorated tree with their children.

The Bartows were Episcopalians (and were connected at various times to most of the local Episcopal churches). This worked out well in terms of celebrating Christmas in the mid-nineteenth century because some denominations, such as those with Calvinist doctrines, traditionally frowned upon what they considered an undue emphasis on Christ’s birth and disapproved of the holiday’s pageantry and its connection to the Roman Catholic Church. The New York Times reported on December 26, 1862: “All the Catholic and Episcopal Churches, and some of [the] other denominations, were beautifully decorated with evergreen wreaths and borders, and in the windows of many houses were hung the wreath and cross.” The article further explained: “Christmas is specially observed as a festival by members of the Protestant Episcopal communion. . . . All their churches are beautifully decorated . . . twined with holly, fir, laurel and hemlock, and the chancels are perfect groves of wintry verdure.” People also adorned their houses with fresh greenery and wreaths.

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Santa Claus. Harper’s Weekly, December 22, 1860. In this engraving, parents buy gifts and toys from holiday shops while their children dream of Santa Claus. Popular presents included dolls, sleds, skates, rocking horses, miniature tea sets, and Noah’s Arks.

Gifts were part of the fun. Although Black Friday and Cyber Monday were years away, alluring shop windows and enticing holiday advertisements encouraged people in the 1860s to get into the spirit of the season. And since the Bartows lived so near New York City, a shopper’s paradise, they likely bought some of their gifts at city stores. The Times reported on December 24, 1864:

In fact the whole business portion of our city seems to be transformed into one grand curiosity shop for the display of holiday gifts; and old Santa Claus variously disguised in pantaloons and petticoats, broadcloth and silks, representing manhood and youth, matron and miss, can be seen hurrying about our streets, peering into the shop-windows . . . Wherever one turns . . .  he beholds a glittering array of useful and ornamental goods, toys and nicknacks [sic].

Books were also popular presents, including some with gilt-decorated bindings and illustrations that were sometimes presented in holiday gift editions.

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The Sleigh Race. Hand-colored lithograph published by N. Currier, New York, ca. 1848. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Bartows would also have enjoyed seasonal outdoor activities such as sleigh rides. In fact, William Augustus Bartow wrote in his journal about sleighing at his farm in Fishkill. And people loved to ice skate both in the country and in urban places like Central Park. On Christmas Eve in 1864, a Times reporter rhapsodized: “Nature has donned her proper Christmas robes of white and ‘The sledges with the bells, Silver bells!’ [Edgar Allan Poe] furnish the merry music so appropriate to the season; the considerate kindness of Jack Frost has covered our lakes and ponds with a firm glassy flooring, very inviting to the lovers of good skating.”

 

 

The Civil War affected every American. This included the Bartows, even though their sons did not fight. Locally, the Union Army had a military hospital on David’s Island and a training facility and prisoner-of-war camp on Hart Island. The women of Christ Church in Pelham volunteered at the hospital, and the New York Herald reported that the Soldiers’ Relief Association gave two hundred dollars for a Christmas festival and funds for a Christmas tree on David’s Island in 1864.

Christmas during wartime, with its idealized domestic circle around the family hearth, helped people to cope with uncertainty, loss, tragedy, and a divided nation. And a fantasy world of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, beautiful gifts, holiday food, cozy firesides, and winter wonderlands gave people an escape from a country torn apart by war. It is not surprising that newspaper accounts sometimes seem incongruous and range from merry to sentimental to grim.

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Thomas Nast (1840–1902). Christmas, 1863. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, December 26, 1863. A Union soldier returns home on holiday furlough surrounded by his family and Yuletide images of Santa Claus, stockings, and Christmas dinner.

The New York Times presented varying perspectives on Christmas as the war progressed. On December 26, 1860, despite rumblings of war, a Times writer joked about the national conflict in his description of a jolly holiday:

As far as concerned “secession,” it was a subject of gratulation with them that they were enabled to secede from business for a day. Evidently, New-York is not yet ruined, nor if yesterday be a criterion, expects to be. For ourselves, we never saw indications of a jollier Christmas.

Exactly one year later, the newspaper changed its tune:

For reasons but too evident to the sense of every citizen, the high festival of the Christian Church . . . was not celebrated yesterday with that boisterous and exuberant hilarity which has for a generation past distinguished its recurrence in this City. . . . Too many were far away, exposed to privation, wounds and death; too many had already paid the debt of patriotism in the sacrifice of their lives, and still too many more were groaning on beds of sickness or mutilation.

And in 1864, although the country was still at war, on Christmas Eve the Times reported:

A walk through Broadway or the Bowery at this time would not convey to a stranger the idea that we were a people impoverished by an exhausted war, overburdened with taxes and oppressed with woe. Gaily decorated shops, filled with articles of convenience and luxury, crowded with eager customers, attest the prosperity of the people. Never before has there been such a display on the part of the storekeepers, never so much lavishness on the part of purchasers.

By Christmas 1865, the war was over, and a Times writer reflected on the past several years:

The angelic song sung to us by choirs, of “Peace on earth and good will to men,” seemed a mockery, heard, as it were, amid the groans of the wounded and the curses of the contending armies. Then by every fireside was a spectre on the Christmas morning. The son, or brother, or husband, was far away in the wintry camp, or fighting foot by foot on the bloody battle-field, or lying lonely in the hospital, or waiting hopelessly in the prison-pen.

But the author also had a message of hope, saying that this year “has come again a Christmas Day of PEACE and UNION and LIBERTY,” a sentiment that the Bartows would certainly have echoed.

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Thomas Nast. The Union Christmas Dinner. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, December 31, 1864. In this poignant image of reconciliation, President Lincoln invites the South to join the Union at the symbolic banquet table.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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