The Civil War, James McIvor explains in his splendidly concise and deceptively powerful book, God Rest Ye Merry, Soldiers: A True Civil War Christmas Story, transformed Christmas into today's national holiday. For four bloody years, December 25 provided soldiers in blue and gray with a much needed respite from the horrors of internecine war and the grueling daily routine and emotional stress of the volunteer soldier. Often soldiers celebrated the seasonal holiday encamped within shouting distance of their enemy. Each Christmas became a special time to reflect on their loved ones, their cause and their reasons for leaving home to fight.
McIvor writes with precision and grace and has unearthed a lode of Civil War-era Christmas poems and songs that general readers will enjoy. He also has mined a cache of original letters and diary entries that convey the pathos and tragedy of war without romanticizing the complexities, frustrations and ambivalent feelings that Union and Confederate soldiers and their families espoused.
On Christmas Day, 1862, for example, a war-weary woman in Richmond, Virginia, reflected on the absence and loss that the day signified. The Christmas dinner passed off gloomily, she wrote. The vacant chairs were multiplied in Southern homes, and even the children who had so seriously questioned the cause of the absence of the young soldier brother from the festive board, had heard too much, and had seen too much, and knew too well why sad-colored garments were worn by the mother, and the fold of rusty crape placed around the worn hat of the father, and why the joyous mirth of the sister was restrained, and her beautiful figure draped in mourning. Nineteen months of war already had left tens of thousands of men dead. It was hard to celebrate. The unidentified Southern lady remarked poignantly that tears had taken the place of smiles on countenances where cheerfulness was wont to reign. McIvor's little book underscores the meaning of Christmas for nations at war, when memories of home and longings for the safe return of loved ones preoccupy families rich and poor. In 1870, the U.S. Congress finally legislated what Americans North and South had already ritualized Christmas became a national holiday. John David Smith is the Charles H. Stone Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the author and editor of many books.