Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Christmas Past

I always have the best intentions but never seem to find enough time to make enough Christmas gifts for friends and family. I usually get a few done but never as many as I planned. Maybe it's because I start too late, LOL? And then I get really busy. They often carry over unfinished and then at least I have a head start on gifts for next year . . . .

Only a few days left and I was thinking about what kind of last minute, quick gifts to make for Christmas. A couple of  years ago I made a few of these Civil War "huswife" needle cases for friends -

They stitch up pretty quickly, and are even great for non-quilters. My sister uses hers as a gift card or credit card case since the pockets are just the right size. The pattern is in my book Remembering Adelia, which I know many of you have. So, if you're looking for a quick handmade gift for a friend, there's still time to whip one up!

During the Civil War, Christmas celebrations were  very subdued and often somber. Many families were without a father (remember the fictional March family in Little Women). Church attendance followed by a large family dinner was the custom in most homes. By 1861 most homes also had a Christmas tree as well as stockings hung in anticipation of St. Nicholas' arrival.  Christmas trees were decorated with popcorn balls, ribbons, colored paper and sometimes edible treats.  Popular gifts of the time included needle books (!), pin cushions, paint boxes, jewelry, tops, pen wipers etc. But the best gift of all may have been the arrival of a loved one returning home from the war.

Sallie Brock Putnam of Richmond VA wrote that Christmas 1861 had been spent making and preparing warm items for the soldiers - caps, stockings and colorful scarves. The soldiers were foremost in people's minds and what food they could afford was sent to the camps to cheer and comfort those who would not be making the trip home for Christmas. The absence of loved ones was keenly felt around most dinner tables and vacant chairs were set as reminders.

As I was sorting through and organizing papers recently I came across pages of the diary entries that were in my Remembering Adelia book. Adelia was 19 and lived in northern Illinois in 1861, the year the Civil War began.  I thought some of you might enjoy reading a simple, firsthand account of what Christmas was like for many families that year:

December 4, 1861
Lydia and I went to Mrs Shaver's in the afternoon. Marg and Frank went with us to Vosburgh's in the evening. Marg has just been to Chicago and she showed us all the new things. Sam Shoemaker brought home the body of his brother Jerome who died in the hospital in Mo., a member of Co F, 15 Reg.,  Illinois Volunteers.

Dec 5, 1861
Mother and Clara went with Mr Goodwin's folks to Crystal Lake to Jerome Shoemaker's funeral. I wrote a letter to Lester. Received one from Em.

Dec 6, 1861
A man recruiting for Mulligan's Brigade in Chicago lectured at the schoolhouse and staid here all night. Wesley Shepard and George Gill signed the muster roll.

Dec 7
The recruiting officer took the boys to Chicago today. Were all here for dinner. Elias went to the station and brought me a letter from Lester and one from Jim at St Louis and a host of papers. Made Clara an apron today.

Dec 18
Mrs Goodwin came here early in the morning to have me do some sewing for her on the machine and she put the facing on the girls' dresses for me.

In the afternoon I went over to see how Jule was and to help Mrs Vosburgh if she needed me. I swept, made some cookies and did her ironing. [Jule was a neighbor friend who had enlisted in the war, became very ill and had now returned home].

Dec 19, 1861

Mother made the stuff all ready for mince pies, chopped apples and all that sort of thing getting ready for Christmas.

Dec 20, 1861

Mother made nineteen mince pies today which took about all of her time. I made a housewife for Lester and Elias is going to Woodstock to carry it to be sent to Washington [where Lester, her "young man" was stationed].

Dec 21, 1861
Worked the forenoon if I ever did. Dressed the chickens, washed the pantry floor, the kitchen floor, made up beds, swept the chambers and almost a little of everything. Mr Bennett and sister came between three and four o'clock. Anderson came in the evening and we went to William's to sing. Had a fire in the fireplace and we couldn’t keep warm. Jule Harback worse and they sent for Father to go and watch.

Dec 22
Got up this morning and the ground was white with snow. It continued to snow all day and it was about eight inches at night. Mr Bennett was here and he was in a stew to know how he was going to get home. Anderson had to go home in the storm and break his own path. I think I never saw so much snow fall at one time.

Dec 23
Father carried Miss B— to the cars [train cars] and Mr Bennett went home with the buggy. Picked and dressed the turkey for Christmas and did the washing. Julius Harback died today. He has been sick more than two months and is nothing but a skeleton.

Dec 24
How unfortunate! When we have got so much work to do. I have been real sick most all day. Got breakfast and washed the dishes and did nothing till three o'clock. Elias went to Crystal Lake after Jule's coffin.

Dec 25
Got up early and got the work done and the turkey in the oven and then went to Jule's funeral. Had a miserable sermon but a full house. He was buried in the Patterson place beside his mother. Found McComber's folks here when we got back. Got dinner as quick as we could. Edwin's folks,  Uncle Johnson, Lydia, Jo, Em and all hands were here.

Dec 26
All hands started home as soon as possible in the morning for the snow was melting so fast. They were afraid of losing the sleighing. It turned cold about noon and froze everything solid. I was left alone with lots of dishes to wash and the house to put in order. Mother was called out in the night to Mrs Stroop and did not get back until afternoon [Mrs Stroop's son was captured and imprisoned].

Last night received a photograph of four soldiers—Lester's and John Southworth and two strangers, no names attached.

(Photo of two soldiers, courtesy of The Library of Congress)

*   *   *
Life was not easy for those who lived 150 years ago and I feel blessed that we do not have to endure some of what they did. It really gives one pause to think of how so many families survived the hardships of this terrible time and yet still managed to celebrate Christmas together in whatever way they could, reaching out and helping each other through the difficulties. I hope all of you are lucky enough to have family around you this time of year and if you know someome who does not, think about inviting them to share your celebration. 
As if the above was not depressing enough, LOL, it looks like there will be no snow here in Chicago for Christmas this year - so, if you're like me and love the stuff,  try to have yourself

A very Merry Christmas anyway!



Anonymous said...

Kathy,I enjoyed reading your blog today. It took my mind off mom for a while. I hope you enjoy your Christmas with your family and best
wishes for you in the new year.
Hugs, Karen

Beth said...

Lovely post. Sad to see that as a nation we are still having some of the same difficulties, many men and women away from home in a ware zone.
Good to remember pulling together and helping each other out and enjoying what we do have.
Happy holidays

Anonymous said...

Love the post. Nice to read about a real Victorian Christmas, I often think about what it was really like back during the Civil War. It helps me with my first person impressions.
I hope your Christmas is a merry celebration.

Diane H said...

Merry Christmas to you and yours, Kathleen. Looks like a white Christmas for us here north of Toronto, Canada as well.

carine said...

Merry Christmas to you too! and also a very Happy2012 Those needlecases are so beautiful and The book is so delightful for reading..... Greetings from Bruges Carine ( patchworkstar;blogspot.com)

baukje said...

Thank you Kathleen for this wonderful post And I have your Amelia book, it's so inspiring .

antique quilter said...

Merry christmas to you and your family
Oh I love those little "huswife" needle cases I need to try and make one of these. I could use one for my travel bag
love that blue fabric with the red ribbon...wonder if I have any of that left!

Elyte said...

Best wishes to you and your family Kathy.
Thank you for all your guidance and inspiration over the year and hope that 2012 brings you good health and prosperity.

Janny Schoneveld said...

And a very merry Christmas to you and the ones you love.
And a healthy new year.
Greetings from a rainy Holland.
Janny S.

Merilyn said...

Wishing you and yours a wonderful holiday season Kathy!

SueB said...

What a wonderful history lesson today. I enjoyed reading about it. I am from Richmond Va. So that made it more special..

Mary said...

Kathy, thank you so much for these wonderful diary entries from Adelia. I loved reading them. I have printed them and the others from some time ago to put into my Remembering Adelia book. Thanks again, Mary