Christmas Must Proceed in 1864
“Varina Howell Davis, Mississippi-born wife of the Southern president declared, “That Christmas season was ushered in under the thickest clouds; every one felt the cataclysm which impended, but the rosy, expectant faces of our little children were a constant reminder that self-sacrifice must be the personal offering of each member of the family.”
Because of the expense involved in keeping them up, Mr.. Davis had recently sold her carriage and horses. A warm-spirited Confederate bought them back and sent them to her. Now she planned to dispose of one of her best satin dresses to obtain funds; with Christmas on the way, the children had high expectations, and she would use all possible makeshifts in an effort to fulfill them.
The Richmond housewives could find no currants, raisins, or other vital ingredients for old Virginia mincemeat pie. But, Mrs. Davis went on, the young considered at least one slice their right, “and the price of indigestion…a debt of honor due from them to the season’s exactions.”
Despite the war, apple trees still bore fruit; with these as a base, she and the other women of the city would utilize any other fruit that came to hand. A little cider and some salt were obtained, as was brandy, though its usual price was a hundred dollars a bottle in inflated Confederate currency.
As for eggnog, the Negro stable attendant, who brought in “the back log, our substitute for the Yule log,” said he did not know how they would “git along without no eggnog. Ef it’s only a little wineglass.” Plans progressed for a quiet home Christmas when unexpected word arrived: The orphans at the Episcopal home had been promised a tree and toys, cake and candy, plus a good prize for the best-behaved girl, and something had to be done about that.
Something was done. With Mrs. Davis’s help, a committee of women was set up and the members repaired to their children’s old toy collections to salvage dolls without eyes, monkeys that had lost their squeak, three-legged and even two-legged horses. They fixed and painted everything, plumping out rag dolls and putting new faces on them, adding fresh tails to feathered chickens and parrots.
The Davis’s invited a group of young friends on Christmas Eve to help make candle molds and string popcorn and apples for the tree; Mr. Pizzini, the confectioner, contributed simple candies. For cornucopias and other ornamentation the Davis’s guests used colored papers, bright pictures from old books, bits of silk out of trunks. All in all, the Christmas Eve of 1864 was far from unsatisfactory. When the small supply of eggnog went around, the eldest Davis boy assured his father: “Now I just know this is Christmas.”
(The Southern Christmas Book, Harnett T. Kane, David McKay Company, 1958, pp. 208-210)