This is best-known of the autobiographical reminiscences of Nancy (“Nannie”) Steed Winningham. It is been reprinted over the years in various sources, without much editing or explanation. Once it was erroneously reprinted as “A Confederate Christmas in Asheboro,” despite the fact that Mrs. Winningham clearly recites the wagon ride to her grandparents home in the country. As a “Christmas Gift” to you blog readers I am offering the original text here, and will serve up footnotes and explanations in another post. I hope to track down the rest of the Winningham letters and publish them here, with annotations.
This illustration by Thomas Nast, entitled “Christmas Eve, 1862” appeared in the January 3, 1863 issue of Harper’s Weekly, published in New York City. The appearance of our modern American “Santa Claus” was largely the pictorial creation of Thomas Nast, and this engraving includes two of his earliest depictions of him and his reindeer in both upper corners.
A CONFEDERATE CHRISTMAS IN 1864
By Mrs. James Lafayette Winningham
Note to the original from Miss Laura Worth: “Mrs. James Lafayette Winningham was the daughter of John Stanley Steed and Rachel Director Swaim. She wrote several letters in 1919 about old Asheboro which were published in the Courier in response to other reminiscences. Her daughter brought the original letters to the Historical Society in 1959. During her last years she lived in Greensboro.“
As I was born in 1857, I can remember Christmas of 1862-3-4. The first two were much the same. My mother always took the children home to her father’s for the holidays. In their home were our three young aunts and a young uncle, all full of life and fun, and about ten grandchildren. Of us there were my three brothers and myself.
On the morning of Christmas Eve what a scurrying there was to get our home-made things packed. A hasty lunch and by the time one of my married uncles came with his team, everything was ready and we arrived in good time for supper, which to us children was a feast indeed, but I suspect it was a little of the pig killed for Christmas, if one was left by that time; lye hominy, sweet potatoes, persimmon pudding, pumpkin fried in pork gravy with maybe a taste of “good coffee” for the elders. This was kept carefully hidden away in Grandmother’s lowboy. The young people had wheat or potato coffee and the children mugs of milk.
Grandmother owned a little black girl who was a year or two older than I. Her mother, a young slave girl, had died at her birth and Grandmother had reared her on a bottle, and kept her for her personal waiting girl. Like most southern children, I loved Harriet as much as if she had been my own sister.
At last, after much excitement, the stockings were all hung — Harriet’s too with the rest, and the sand man came along. Then in about seventeen seconds the pine knots were blazing in the big fire-place and Santa Claus had been there, for wasn’t there the tracks of his sleigh in the big, wide chimney — made by my uncle with the poker “as was a poker”. In our stockings were “goobers”, as we called the peanuts, walnuts, ginger cakes and Oh Joy! two or three sticks of striped candy. I’m wondering to this day where it came from for we had not seen a stick of striped candy in a year.
After breakfast my aunties started the eggnog; then about ten o’clock their friends, mostly young boys, came in to wish all a merry Christmas, but expressed in those days as “Christmas Gift” and to get a drink of eggnog. It was there in the big bowl all the morning and we were all given a generous taste.
Just before the one o’clock dinner we were playing in the yard, when from the front porch my aunt Sue exclaimed: “Oh, Look! There they come!” I looked and until my dying day I shall never forget the fear and horror that filled me. There were sixteen or eighteen old bony horses with trappings of anything that could be found, with strings of rags of black, blue, red or white. The riders were young boys, with their coats turned wrong side out and wearing horrible—looking false faces, singing and making all kinds of discordant noises. I made one dash to the side of my boon companion, Harriet, and asked in a trembling voice: “Which is it, the old bad man or the Yankees?” which to a southern child at that time meant much the same thing, the bad man, if anything, playing on the winning team. Being assured it was only the boys, my fears were allayed and I enjoyed the strange spectacle. They rode around the village several times and disappeared. As I look back upon it, I suppose it was a scraggly, pitiful attempt to carry out the old English custom of the waifs of England, which had been handed down from their English ancestors.
After dinner some old men and boys came in with flutes, banjos and fiddles (not violins) and played for an enthusiastic house full of friends and neighbors. Sometimes I almost seem to hear now the sweet, sad music played so martially – “The Bonnie Blue Flag”, “The Girl I left behind me”, “Hurrah for the Southern Rights, Hurrah! Hurrah!” and “Hurrah! for the Homespun Dress the Southern Ladies Wear”.
Through all this trying to have a little fun ran an undercurrent of solemnity and anxiety, and many questions of “Have you heard any more from husband, father or son?” were heard.
Late in the afternoon I passed the open kitchen door and Grandmother stood leaning against a cupboard with her head in her arms crying as if her heart would break and it almost broke mine. I asked Harriet why she was crying and she said, “Mars Luther Clegg had drinked too much eggnog” — her baby boy, just a youth. I wondered why she allowed them to make it but it was a Southern custom hard to break.
My father and my uncle owned and operated a large tannery, shoe and harness shop. They had a contract with the Confederate government to furnish shoes to some of our soldiers and that kept them in the service at home. Early in 1864 my father sold his interest in the business to my uncle and in a few months was drafted and sent to eastern Carolina, where he was in the service, though not in the line.
It seemed to me that Christmas in 1864 began about December 10. We were told on getting up in the morning, that our mother was sick and during the day she became much worse. One of our kind neighbors brought her black woman, “Aunt Patsy”, and they stayed through the night. Soon they sent for our faithful family physician, who on account of advancing years bad about given up his practice until the war began and the younger doctors were all in the service of their southland. He gave my mother tender care and attention, with no thought of ever rendering a bill- his payment being the service of my father to the flag. On the morning of the 10th we were told we had a little brother named for his daddy. Oh! I suppose he was welcome but Christmas loomed darkly ahead. No daddy, no trip to “Grampys”, no shoes, no clothes hardly, no picture books, no dolls, no candy and just no “nuthin”.
On Sunday morning my uncle rode by while we were playing in the road, and be asked: “Boys, where are your shoes?” “We haven’t got any”, my brother answered. He told them to go to the shoe shop Monday and be measured for shoes. I was sorry my own were not a little better or else worse so that I could have a new pair.
There was a man in our town called Captain Pragg, who owned a dry goods store. A few days before Christmas he sent one of his men to the house to tell my mother that if she would send for it he would give her a nice ham for a present. She was very pleased and never forgot the courtesy.
My aunt from the country came and brought us all something for Christmas. My present was a balmoral (petticoat) which she had carded, spun and. woven herself. I never told anyone but I could never drum up enough patriotism to like that coarse, scratchy petticoat. And that wasn’t the only thing I could never learn to like.
To this day when my husband occasionally likes a supper of milk and mush or corn bread and milk, the vision of a big, grayish-brown earthenware jar of milk and a bowl of mush or the plate of thick corn pones, with perhaps smudges of ashes on the brown crust, that depending on the skill of the one who lifted the lid with its burden of coals and ashes from the skillet, comes to me and I say “You may have it all,” I’m afraid it will give me indigestion.
And the Christmas baby — well, his father never saw him until he came home after General Lee’s surrender and by that time he was almost five months old.