A drawing by Thomas Nast called “Christmas Eve” appeared in the Christmas edition of Harper’s Weekly.

Christmas in Midst of Civil War

While Christmas traditions were spreading quickly throughout the country, this area was heating up under the pressures of proslavery and antislavery settlers. 

By Diane Euston 

 Christmastime brightens the spirit with the soft, dimly lit ambiance of a glowing tree. Evergreen hangs from doorways, fences and railings. The fire crackles and sends warmth in deep contrast to the icy nights fogging up the windows of homes.

  Christmas is full of fascination and excitement. It’s nostalgic. It brings fond feelings of days long past. Christmas, it seems, makes us cherish everything just a little bit more.

  Christmas traditions really took off in the 1850s and 1860s, and this is exactly when Westport was booming and Kansas City was founded. 

  But, this period of time was one of the most tumultuous in our nation’s history. As traditions and imagery we know and love were just beginning, the country was in deep turmoil.

The Earliest Christmas Celebrations

  Before planes, trains and automobiles could blast us from one end of the earth to the other, settlers of the area weren’t able to travel large distances for just any occasion. 

  The settlers who first came to the area were the French Catholic fur traders. By the early 1820s, they settled in what is now the West Bottoms and traded predominately with Native American tribes. Their celebrations, in general, included music and dancing. 

  Because of the distance from extended family, most of these Christmas celebrations involved the isolated community. There was no travel to distant places for a holiday – especially in the winter months when travel was the most dangerous.

  By the 1830s, the area where Kansas City is today was inundated with emigrants from Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. Many of these people migrated to the area with extended family, and most settled near each other. 

  Traveling from one house to another to celebrate with extended family living several miles away from one another probably wasn’t happening. City folk would have more of the modern conveniences to allow for more “advanced” Christmas celebrations than those on the frontier. Until the 1850s, Kansas City and Westport had very limited options.

 These Southern men, women and children spent Christmas at their log homes, cooking meals of wild turkey, ham, saddle of mutton, roasted pig and chicken. “Sides” included dried vegetables or fruits.

Eleanor “Nelly” McCoy Harris (1840-1926) wrote of her childhood memories of Christmas in Jackson County, Missouri.

  Early Christmas celebrations were hosted by some of Kansas City’s pioneer families, and invitations to attend were mostly written and sometimes verbal. There was no RSVP; these pioneers made sure there was enough food to feed all their neighbors, family and friends. 

  Nelly McCoy Harris (1840-1926), daughter of Westport and Kansas City founder, John Calvin McCoy, fondly recalled these early celebrations. “We went to frolics early and we stayed late,” she wrote. 

  A common dessert served at these large gatherings, according to Nelly, were pyramid cakes. The dessert was placed at the center of every makeshift table in a host’s log cabin. Rarely did any Christmas celebration make it to the bottom layer of the pyramid cake, which was actually a tin pan covered in icing. Sugar, an expensive commodity during this time period, was utilized on this special occasion. 

  Children didn’t expect gifts from Santa Claus in these early days; instead, children would yell “Christmas gift!” when they entered a home or approached another partygoer. The first person to yell it would then receive a gift, usually fresh or dried fruit. “Now they say ‘Merry Christmas,’” Nelly lamented. “I do not exactly understand the last expression.”

The Emergence of Today’s Christmas

  Even the mention of Christmas as a celebration in early newspapers is few and far between. Christmas was a religious observance that started with two important ingredients- church and family.

  What makes this country unique is the blend of cultures that stirred together to create a new take on Christmas. Each group of people came from the old world to the new with their own set of traditions for the holiday.

  The Dutch brought Santa Claus, Scandinavians hung mistletoe, and Christmas trees were a German custom, to just name a few. So when these immigrants sailed to America, they brought with them these unique customs. And as people married outside of their native countries, the entangling of traditions began.

  Even in the early 1800s, evergreens, festoons and garlands with artificial roses decorated churches and public buildings. 

  The only true color during the cold winter months was that of evergreens and holly berries. Bringing these only signs of life indoors became associated with the season and remain to this day. 

  It wasn’t until the 1850s that Americans began to welcome a tradition from Germany, and it took hold because of the popularity of one prince.

A scene from the Christmas celebration of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria and their children, engraved in 1848 is credited for popularizing the Christmas tree. Image courtesy Webster Museum.

  The popularity of this unique custom began with Prince Albert, the German husband of Queen Victoria. Honoring his roots, the Queen first allowed a Christmas tree in her castle in 1841. 

  This once-isolated custom of the Christmas tree spread like wildfire. People, mostly in large cities, began purchasing small trees that sat on tables, decorating them with dried fruit, popcorn strings, candies and later candles. So in 1850, this Christmas tree thing was new and certainly wasn’t commonly practiced in this area.

  Small towns such as Kansas City and Westport didn’t have widespread Christmas celebrations nor did they truly decorate for the holiday.

  Amidst the growing of a nation and the movement of pioneers to the west, including the Kansas City area, the Christmas tree moved along with them. By 1857, the Christmas tree, according to an account in New York, was “becoming a common institution among [people].”

The Christmas Raid

  While these traditions were spreading quickly throughout the country, this area was heating up under the pressures of proslavery and antislavery settlers. 

  By the mid 1850s, due to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the borders around here were less-than-calm. The Jayhawkers versus the bushwhackers had interrupted any hopes of peace. Christmas wasn’t going to stop them from their mission. 

  During the week of Christmas in 1858, one of the most notorious border ruffians made his mark in the newspapers, and it wasn’t in honor of the holiday. Notorious John Brown (1800-1859) was alerted by an enslaved man that his family was to be sold; his slaveholder, a man named James Lawrence, had died. 

  John Brown popped over to the Missouri side of the state line in Vernon County, leading about 25 men total. The main band of 15, led by Brown, arrived at the home of James Lawrence on December 20, and inside the home was Lawrence’s son-in-law and Harvey S. Hicklin. Under the threat of death, Brown carried off “one sorrel horse, one bay horse, one large yoke of oxen, one large wagon, two horse collars and two blind bridles and one lock chain.” 

John Brown (1800-1859)

  In addition, he was able to round up two enslaved men, one enslaved woman and two children.

  Meanwhile, the other group of 10 men went to the farm of David Cruise who held two men in bondage. They were there to free the enslaved, but they were also there because they had heard a rumor that Cruise had buried gold on his property. While trying to defend himself, Cruise was killed. 

  Cruise’s wife, terrified, was held at gunpoint as they demanded she tell them of the buried treasure. They left with no gold but were able to take a horse and one female slave; the other enslaved man had run off in terror.

  In all, John Brown and his men liberated eleven slaves. In their “Christmas Raid,” as it became to be known, they successfully took this group of slaves to Windsor, Ontario after traveling 1500 miles in 82 days. One enslaved woman was allegedly pregnant, and when she gave birth to a baby boy, she named him “John Brown.” 

  This was John Brown’s last Christmas. On December 2, 1859, Brown was hanged for his role in the infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry.

A Christmas Fire and Fiery Celebrations 

  Destruction wreaked havoc on the area one year later when on Christmas Day in 1859, a fire in the heart of Westport destroyed 13 businesses and houses made mostly of wood.  

  The Border Star, a pro-slavery newspaper in Westport, wrote on December 31, “Our town is truly a scene of sadness and distress, and the square in front of our office window presents a mournful picture of smothered flames, cinders, charred walls, a desolation.”

  Originating at the Pioneer Drug Store on Main St. owned by Dr. Boggs, the fire interrupted any semblance of Christmas cheer. The clerk of the store was off at church, so the doors to the business were locked.

  Yes, people worked on Christmas back then – it was not yet a national holiday and didn’t become one until 1870.

  An alarm was given but they couldn’t enter the secured business quickly. Time ticked on and the fire traveled to neighboring businesses, including Roby’s Indian Store next door. It raged onto the corner of Main and Main Cross Streets (Pennsylvania).

  As people gathered to work to put out the fire, the greedy were ready in the shadows. One man stuffed his chest with handkerchiefs and his rear end with “silks and laces” stolen from local merchants in the chaos.

Headline in Westport’s Border Star newspaper, December 31, 1859.

  The Border Star reported, “A great deal of free liquor was rolled out onto the street, and a great many free drinkers took advantage of it. They got a cheap Christmas spree.”

  The fire spread quickly because Westport didn’t have a fire station and water was hard to come by.

  On Christmas Day in 1861, the year the Civil War broke out, Westport hosted a dance for those who weren’t in the army or were “neutral.” At the height of the party, bushwhackers busted into the dance.

  One of his border ruffians had on a Union officer’s uniform, and blood could be seen on the collar. They danced with unwilling partners and left as quickly as they had come.

  On Christmas night in 1865, Union soldiers at a dance in Lee’s Summit got into an argument with bushwhackers over dance partners and it spilled onto the streets.

  Shots were fired, and even a train passing by was shot into. Only one injury was reported.

  Even with all this commotion in the Kansas City area, the slow progression of our modern-day Christmas began to morph into traditions, images and customs we still see today. 

The Birth of a Modern-Day Santa 

  German immigrant Thomas Nast (1840-1902), an illustrator, took his talents and literally formed our modern image of good ole’ Saint Nick in the middle of the Civil War. 

  Nast’s first drawings of Santa Claus helped personalize Christmas when the deeply divided nation needed it the most. They appeared in the Christmas 1862 edition of Harper’s Weekly. 

Thomas Nast’s first image of Santa Claus appeared on the cover of the Christmas edition of Harper’s Weekly in January 1863 and is titled “Christmas at Camp.”

  The first of these in the issue featured a man closely resembling today’s Santa Claus dressed in a suit made up of stars and stripes, and he’s pictured at a Union camp distributing gifts. A puppet, modeled after Confederate president Jefferson Davis, has a noose around his neck. 

  The second drawing shows Santa going down a chimney, and in one circle, a woman is seen praying for the return of her husband and in the other, a soldier sits alone against a tree.

  Citizens in cities and on the frontier found solace in the message of Christmas. Peace and good will toward men held a special meaning during this heartbreaking time period. The sentimentality of Nast’s drawings showed the simplicity of the season and how easily it could be lost.

  The 22-year-old artist gained national attention for his talents, especially during the Civil War when he drew many pro-Union and anti-slavery depictions. In fact, Abraham Lincoln called Thomas Nast the Union’s “best recruiting sergeant.” 

Thomas Nast (1840-1902) is credited with the creation of the imagery of the modern-day Santa Claus.

  The Civil War ripped families apart; the breadwinners of a myriad amount of settlers were off fighting in the war, hundreds of miles away from all they loved. And after the Civil War ended in 1865, 620,000 men – 2% of the population- never returned home.

  These were simpler times when it came to traditions and customs, but war ravaged the country. Things such as Thomas Nast’s drawings were perfectly placed in a popular magazines in order to give hope to the future.

“Merry Old Santa Claus,” published in 1889 by Thomas Nast shows the evolution of Santa into the jolly gentleman in red.

A Simpler Time in a Healing Nation

  The message of healing and peace was prominent in the Kansas City Daily Journal of Commerce on Christmas Eve in 1865, and the message was humbling:

 There is absolutely no good and equitable reason for further strife or antagonism between the people of the different sections. . . Let our motto be “Our country; the Union, one and inseparable.” With the door hereafter and forever barred against sectional jealousies, the people of the United States will in the future present a united front to despotisms of the world. 

  After the Civil War, soldiers from both sides returned to this area and resumed life as normal. Neighbors, enemies under different flags, cleansed their hands of the past and looked forward to a peaceful future. 

  The bullets stopped, but the love of Christmas developed during the Civil War did not. The imagery developed by artists such as Thomas Nast coupled with the articles promoting the holiday sealed Christmas’s place in a then-peaceful nation. America, united once again under one flag, cherished the peace embedded in the message of the Christmas season. 

Diane writes a blog about the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to http://www.newsantfetrailer.blogspot.com 

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