Illinois Celebrated AfterCivil War at Christmas 1865

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The Civil War spanned a total of four Christmas seasons, and the soldiers and citizens of Illinois were left to celebrate the holiday as best they could. Some Yuletides were happier than others.

As the casualties piled up, the Christmas seasons of 1862, 1863, and 1864 were less joyous. But revelry reigned supreme in December 1865, the first Christmas since the end of the war.

Across Illinois, returning soldiers and their families were ready to resume the Christmas spirit. Though the holiday was much simpler than today, some of the same traditions we enjoy today were around. Many Illinoisans, though, were just happy to be together.

Dances were a big part of Christmas back then, and firefighters in Rock Island were ready with a “grand Christmas ball” on Christmas night at Western Engine Company No. 1. An advertisement for the ball in the Rock Island Argus was highlighted by a drawing of a nineteenth-century pumper truck. Music by a local band was featured as tickets to the ball went for a dollar apiece. “Supper for all…prepared in the best style” was offered for another fifty cents.

Food was a featured attraction at Christmas in 1865, and while turkey, duck, and goose were popular picks, other favorites were eye-opening. In southern Illinois, the Chester Picket Guard reported that, at one “popular saloon and oyster house,” Christmas customers “undertook to completely demolish” a “stock of fresh oysters.” Indeed, oysters were a delicacy at holiday time throughout the nineteenth century.

That was certainly better than an advertisement in the Chicago Tribune, where a local department store promoted “something new for the holidays – serpents’ eggs.”

With this novelty, consumers were invited to “place an egg on a plate and ignite it with a match…and a beautiful serpent will appear and run around the plate.” For the less-inclined, there was also “a fresh supply of the Magic Wheel,” which created a sort of light show.

Some Americans put up greenery at mid-century, and the Black Hawk Nursery was ready in Rock Island with “green trees for Christmas,” along with “evergreen branchesfor decorating rooms for the holydays.”

That spelling of “holiday” was also found in northern Illinois in the Belvidere Standard, where an ad for local merchant Jaffray’s hawked “a fine assortment of toys and children’s books” as well as some adult favorites of the era, including “albums,” pocket and family Bibles, “work-boxes,” games, and “microscopes and stereoscopes.”

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Other holiday favorites were listed in an Alton Telegraph ad for local retailer J.H. Hibbard, promoting “juvenile books,” ladies’ glove boxes, “writing desks of all sizes,” games and puzzles, stationery, and “colored photographs.”

In the Centralia Sentinel, an ad for Hand’s New Depot offered “toys, candies, nuts, books, magazines, and pictorials,” while nearby, residents of little Kinmundy were gearing up for a “Christmas party at the New Hall,” where “good music will be provided and much enjoyment and fun is anticipated.”

Photography was still a luxury at the end of the Civil War, and studios tried to make it a Christmas selection. In an ad in the Bloomington Pantagraph, the studios of Gray and Company asked, “what more acceptable present you can make than one of those

excellent photographs or ambrotypes,” with frames “sold very cheap.”

Many spent part of yuletide in 1865 in church, where the Christmas tree was sometimes a centerpiece. In Woodstock, the Sentinel described “two Sabbath School Christmas trees” in town; “one at the Presbyterian, and the other at the Methodist church,” which had “a very large gathering” with “singing, reading, and declamation by the children.” Afterward, presents totaling $400 were distributed, a good haul for the time.

Nearby in Richmond, Ill., “no Sabbath School scholar was allowed to go home without a memento from the Christmas tree of ’65,” reflecting a time when small gifts were used as ornaments on the greenery. Elsewhere in town, “an old folks’ sociable” was held at the Temperance House, with “the cup that cheers but never intoxicates.” There was also plenty of interest in a “wolf hunt” in Richmond over Christmas week.

In Clark County in eastern Illinois, the Marshall Messenger reported “the weather has been very pleasant during the holidays, and as a consequence, the people have had a good opportunity of enjoying themselves to their heart’s content, and well have they improved the opportunity.”

Celebrations for all ages were found across town. The Messenger mused that “the younger children thought it the height of happiness to hang up their stockings and find them filled by Old St. Nicholas,” while “the boys were as happy as they desired to be – standing around large bonfires…with pockets well filled with firecrackers and torpedoes, making the nights hideous with their noise.”

Meanwhile, wrote the Messenger, “the youth of both sexes were satisfied with spending the evenings in the ballroom, keeping step to the ‘Arkansaw Traveler’…or gilding with grace and elasticity over the smooth and icy surface of the millpond.”

The Messenger summarized the joy of December 1865 best in writing “this was perhaps the merriest Christmas ever spent by the citizens of Marshall. The war is over and those whose friends survived the devastation of bloody war are happy in the enjoyment of their society; and all are happy that war has vanished from our land, and that we are still a united people.” It was a poignant thought after the darkest four years in American history.

Tom Emery is a freelance writer and historical researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at or 217-710-8392.

This story originally ran in the December 2021 issue of The Prairie Land Buzz Magazine. The Buzz Magazine in distributed free each month in 11 IL counties. Find out more at

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