Friday, December 20, 2013

A Civil War Christmas in Vermont

In keeping with the "Dickens of a Christmas" theme that the Cavendish Historical Society is working with the students at the Cavendish Town Elementary School, we found today's post from the Vermont Humanities Council "Civil War Book of Days," very much in keeping with what we have been talking about with the students. There is always the question, when did Christmas become a celebration in Cavendish? Clearly, from the article below, Christmas was definitely an important holiday in Vermont prior to the start of the Civil War.

Vermont Town Enjoys its First Christmas Tree and Works to Make Christmas a Happy Time for Children Despite the War

In 1913, St. Johnsbury, Vermont resident Sarah French set down her memories of Christmas 1862, 151 years ago. She wrote:

Fifty years ago people in St. Johnsbury spent little time in merrymaking, or in social functions of any kind, The country was in throes of the Civil War and there were few families where there was not a vacant chair and anxious hearts awaiting news from the battle fields.

The weekly Caledonian of December 19 and December 26 [1862] carried long lists of the Union soldiers from Vermont killed and wounded at the Battle of Fredericksburg. Pink teas, luncheons or seven course dinners formed no part of social life and busy women spent much time making garments, rolling bandages, and scraping lint for wounded soldiers.

Not withstanding all this, it came to the minds of some of the kind people of the South Church that it was not right to shut out the children from the joys that rightly belonged to them. "Let us make the coming Christmas a happy time." The plan was heartily endorsed and soon took shape. "It shall be a Christmas in the Church." There were no department stores or art stores from which we might make choice of gifts and so loving fingers wrought and the needles flew merrily in willing hands and the pile of gifts grew apace.
. . .
As the time drew near Mr. Jewett began to fear we might be lacking things to go around. So he made a hurried trip to Boston where he invaded toy shops, and book stores, confectioners and fruit dealers, and when he returned we could see the successful conclusion of our labors.

Two tall fir trees found their places in front of the pulpit, and verily fir trees never bore such fruit before, at least in St. Johnsbury. . . .

Christmas was cold as Christmas should be and the hills were white with snow and Christmas Eve found the South Church full of happy expectant children and equally happy grown folks.

The trees fairly groaned with their burdens and underneath stood a huge basket filled with oranges, a great treat in those days, for Florida and California had not emptied their treasures of fruits into our markets and our oranges came from the Mediterranean or the West Indies.

Our pastor Rev. Lewis O. Brastow, who had recently returned home from nearly a year of service as chaplain of the Twelfth Vermont Regiment, was a bachelor and was a target for many gifts, books for his library, a dressing gown and slippers enough for a centipede. The Superintendent received a gold headed cane such as Superintendent are apt to have. Teachers had books and the children had just those things that children love, toys and games for the winter evenings, story books and boxes of candy.

Bright eyes and shining faces showed their appreciation of the gifts and when the senior class of elderly men led by Mr. [James K.] Colby of blessed memory, with Deacon Arnold Hutchinson, Levi Harlow and Francis Brigham received copies in most effulgent colors of the choicest of the nursery classics, "The Hare and The Tortoise," "Little Red Riding Hood" and others. Their faces were wreathed in smiles and I do not believe an Encyclopedia or a Webster Unabridged Dictionary would have been more acceptable.

The Candles burned low as we wished one another a Merry Christmas and wended our ways home. And so it was that the South Church in 1863 celebrated the birthday of our lord.

Transcribed by Lynn A. Bonfield and published in the North Star Monthly, December 2010. This entry was submitted by Lynn A. Bonfield.

Read letters from Vermont Civil War Soldiers about what Christmas was like for them. 

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