Jessie Cortesi

Robert T. Lincoln gifted this book, The Best Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, published in 1892, to his daughter Jessie at Christmastime in 1896. (71.2009.084.06957)


For Americans, there was little “peace on earth” on the Christmases of 1861–1864. But even as the Civil War raged, the holiday was celebrated in soldiers’ camps and civilian homes. Though most of the traditions that we associate with a Victorian Christmas—greeting cards, Christmas trees, Santa Claus—were relatively new to Civil War-era Americans, they were part of the celebrations. Perhaps most famously, the cartoonist Thomas Nast evoked the image of Santa Claus as a symbol of the Union cause. Nast’s now-classic Santa Claus first appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1863 and would reappear annually thereafter.


“Santa Claus in Camp,” Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863 (71.2009.084.08088)


This cover illustration by Thomas Nast from the January 3, 1863, issue of Harper’s Weekly features Santa Claus decked out in striped pants and a star-spangled coat distributing presents to the troops—including a toy that looks like Jefferson Davis with a rope around his neck.


Letter from Mary Todd Lincoln to Mary Harlan Lincoln (71.2009.085.02600_20)


Mary Lincoln wrote this letter to her daughter-in-law Mary Harlan Lincoln from London in November 1870. She considers her plans for the upcoming Christmas holiday, which may lead her to vacation in Italy with Ellen Simpson, wife of Bishop Matthew Simpson of the Methodist Episcopal Church. She contemplates sending Tad back to America for school but shares her fears for his safety.


“Christmas Eve, 1862,” Harper’s Weekly, January 3, 1863 (71.2009.084.08088)


In this January 1863 illustration, Thomas Nast portrays a married couple separated by war on Christmas Eve, 1862. The wife, with her children asleep and Santa Claus preparing to come down the chimney above, prays at the window for her husband’s safe return. Her husband, a Union soldier on guard duty, holds photographs of his family and longs for home, while above him Santa’s sleigh makes a stop at an army camp.


“Christmas, 1863,” Harper’s Weekly, December 26, 1863 (71.2009.081.0103)


The large center image of this December 1863 Nast illustration depicts a soldier returning home for Christmas, reuniting with his family. The left image depicts two children sleeping as Santa Claus hovers over them, while the image on the right depicts a family playing with toys on Christmas morning. The three small vignettes depict the birth of Jesus, Christmas dinner, and families attending church on Christmas morning.


Jessie Cortesi is a Senior Lincoln Librarian for the Lincoln Financial Foundation Collection with the Rolland Center for Lincoln Research at the Allen County Public Library.