In the depths of winter, a cold and merciless night, a general sits awake. The soft scratch of pen across paper is the only sound, along with the occasional guttering of his candle in the harsh wind that seeps through his tent. The hour is late, but still the general writes; what is this critical bit of writing that detains his attention, that pulls him from that vital tonic, sleep? Surely, some decisive wartime dispatch or order for troops. Nope. Rather, it is a letter from a great general to three little girls on the topic of Santa Claus.
The Civil War, a time of inestimable hardship and loss, was also, ironically enough, the era of the birth of our modern-day Santa Claus. The jolly, cheery, and plump man came to reside in the hearts of a malnourished and downhearted people torn apart by war. In 1862 illustrator Thomas Nast first depicted Santa as we know him today: rosy-cheeked and burdened with gifts, spreading the joy of Christmastime. Harper’s Weekly published the illustration and unknowingly perpetuated an icon that would last to the present day.
In a time when the idea of family was most vulnerable, Americans grasped the comfort of Christmas and its symbolic encouragement of the ideals of family and homecoming. Christmas, and the newly mythologized figure of Santa, were held onto as thin threads of hope. And, in the spirit of war, these once-pure symbols were quickly utilized for the dirty business of propaganda.
Shortly after the publication of Nast’s illustration, as that new figure of jolly Santa began to seep into the American consciousness, President Abraham Lincoln asked Nast to create a new depiction of Mr. Claus. This time, as per Lincoln’s request, Nast sketched Santa alongside Union troops, buoying their spirits with Christmas cheer. The illustration didn’t just depict a fictional group of Union soldiers comforted by Santa; the piece of propaganda was circulated to cheer the true, tangible troops too.
With a one-two punch, Lincoln’s swift and deliberate employment of the iconic Santa not only heartened the Union, it dispirited the souls of his opponents in the Confederacy. The very essence of goodness embodied in that velveteen coat, it seemed, had chosen his side.
But the Confederacy and General Robert E. Lee would not surrender the bearded, boisterous fellow so easily. A story began to circulate across the South, whispered among its troops and told fireside in its broken homes. General Lee, the tale told, knew Santa Claus personally and could guarantee his support of the Confederacy. The “official” story was published after the war, in 1867’s General Lee and Santa Claus: Christmas Gifts to her Little Southern Friends by Mrs. Louise Clack.
According to Clack, in the midst of the war, three young Confederate girls orphaned by the war wrote a desperate letter to General Lee. Lutie, Birdie, and Minnie, in addition to applauding the general and his efforts, pleaded a single question: “whether Santa Claus loves the little rebel children, for we think he don’t.” According to the girls, Santa had been absent from their chimney for the four years of the war and, therefore, they assumed he loved them not.
General Robert E. Lee could not stand the thought of such unhappy children. Though a shrewd general, Lee was a kindhearted and gentle man at heart. He wrote to the girls, offering explanation of Santa Claus’s absence. According to Lee, on Christmas Eve years before, he had stopped Santa as he sailed overhead on his mission to deliver gifts further South. General Lee instead implored the gentle giant to retreat north and sell the gifts in exchange for desperately needed “medicines, bandages, ointments and delicacies for our sick and wounded men.” Santa did just that, returning some time later with the requested supplies, and had continued to do so for the following Christmases. And so, Lee promised, “I can assure you he is one of the best friends that the little Southern girls have.”
The story of friendship between Lee and Santa turned the plump, chipper man into more than just a symbol of a holiday, but a savior of the South. The tale of General Lee and Santa Claus boosted the downtrodden spirits and morale of the Confederacy during the war; after the war, with the publication of the story in Clack’s book, the story had a different kind of effect. In addition to heartening a defeated region, the sales from the book benefited the orphans and orphanages of the South.
Regardless of affiliation or side, Santa Claus became a source of comfort and joy for all Americans, even in such a tumultuous time as the Civil War. And so he continues to be, a figure of such pure kindness and generosity that he could unite two distinct peoples into one. Over a century later, Santa retains that essence of magic and continues to spread cheer around the country and the world.