Christmas Lessons on Grief and Hope from the Civil War

When we think about Christmas, many of us think about traditions: the parties, the food, the lights, the music, and the outfits we wear. We think about the heartwarming “warm and fuzzy” feelings generated by giving and receiving gifts and so dramatically depicted in Christmas movies. All of these things are a gift from our Lord, and we should feel free to enjoy them! After all, “God…richly provides us everything to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17 ESV). Many of us are in “celebration mode” this year, which is right and fitting!

But what about those years when the “warm and fuzzy” feelings just aren’t there? What about seasons of societal instability and upheaval? More personally, what about times of grief or loss? I think of some members of our Emmaus community and ache with them for the losses sustained this year. What do Christmas traditions offer in those times? What can we do to celebrate alongside the hurt?

Sallie McNeill

As a historian, my mind naturally turns back to just such a time of upheaval and loss: the American Civil War. One of the primary sources I used in my MA thesis was the diary of Sallie McNeill, a Texas resident, Baylor alumnus, and devout Methodist who wrote from 1858-1867. Sallie’s reflections during the Christmas season shed light on the experiences of one family in the Civil War home front.

On December 26, 1860, she wrote, “Christmas is again with us. Ushered in, on our part, by firing guns, trees, logs, etc. The customary eggnog was duly served. Of course, the Turkey and cakes were not forgotten.” This rather dry description, followed by complaints about various family members, ended on a serious note: “I am afraid all in these troublous times, do not wish ‘peace and goodwill to men,’ but trust there are many who welcome with joyful thanksgiving this anniversary of our Savior’s birth. ‘Glory to God in the highest’ for His ‘unspeakable gift.’'
Although the war had not yet officially started, tensions abounded and fears and forebodings troubled Sallie and her community. Yet, for this year at least, the McNeills celebrated their traditions as they normally would, which Sallie seemed to appreciate in her own way. Sometimes traditions can be a good way to refocus on the Lord and His blessings in our lives, and it seemed to work this way for Sallie. After recording her participation in the traditions, she expressed her (soon-to-be-crushed) hope for peace and thankfulness for the coming of Christ.

Christmas Grief

But what about the next year? What about 1861, the year in which the war began? Sallie’s whole attitude changed, as evidenced by her response to a well-intentioned greeting on December 16, 1861: “’It is a useless gesture to wish me a ‘happy Christmas,’ said I, & felt, what a sad lonely day in prospect.” To be fair, Sallie missed her family members who were involved in the war: “I was contrasting this holiday, with last year’s, thinking so longingly of the merry voices, which awakened me, then.”  Sallie’s focus had understandably shifted from the Lord to her personal losses.

And in 1862? This is where primary sources fail us; we do not have a surviving journal entry from Christmas of 1862 or any future Christmas. Judging by her New Years’ entries, Sallie began to take a more dismal and despairing tone. The 1866 entry offers an illuminating sample: “A New Year! And what do the coming months promise? Alas! as I recall the trials, and afflictions of the past Year, my heart sinks in contemplation of the Future.” Although Sallie’s journal continued to reflect her strivings towards spiritual growth and hope of Heaven, she had lost her optimism and hope for this life. She had forgotten the ways in which the Lord brightens our everyday existence and had ceased to trust, with the psalmist, “that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living” (Psalm 27:13, ESV).

Hope Amidst Despair

Although such hopelessness is understandable, and I do not blame Sallie for it, it is still sad to see. If this article ended here, it would be a rather depressing one. But I would like to draw our attention to another primary source written during the Civil War, this time from the Union home front. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in the depths of personal grief himself, wrote a reflection on the Christmas message of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.” The third and fourth verses of this poem-turned-carol offer a helpful model for us:
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong, and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Longfellow appears to participate in, or at least observe, Christmas worship and traditions. At the same time, he acknowledges his “despair” and does not stifle it. He expresses his grief to the Lord and receives encouragement in return. He allows himself to hear the “deeper” message of the Lord: deeper than his circumstances and losses, and deeper than the social tensions all around him. Longfellow realizes that the Lord is not ignoring us or spurning our cries for help. We can trust the just Judge to do what is right in His own perfect timing (Genesis 18:25).

May we, like Longfellow, have the strength to celebrate, to grieve, to struggle, to pray, and to trust the Lord this Christmas!

Kari McDowell

Kari McDowell has been a history professor at Emmaus Bible College since the fall of 2021. She earned a B.A. in Bible/Theology & History from Multnomah University and an M.A. in History from Baylor University.
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