CHRISTMAS IN THE CONFEDERATE WHITE HOUSE

FROM: The New York WORLD, Sunday, December 13, 1896 (p. 26): Written especially for the Sunday World Magazine by Mrs. Jefferson Davis.

    NOTE:  The  left  margin of this clipping is  ragged  in  places.
    Missing  or fragmentary words that could not be puzzled  out  are 
    indicated as "[missing]."
          While  looking  over  the advertisements of  the  toys  and
    everything  else  intended  to make the children  joyful  in  the
    columns  of  the  city papers, I have  been  impressed  with  the
    contrast  between the present time and the con-[missing]  of  the
    Southern  country thirty-one years ago, but not withstanding  the
    great facilities of the present time, have been unable to  decide
    whether for the young it was not as gay then as now.

          For  as Christmas season was ushered in under  the  darkest
    clouds, everyone 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.  How to satisfy the children when nothing  better
    could  be  done  than  the little  makeshift  attainable  in  the
    Confederacy  was  the  problem  of  the  older  members  of  each
    household.  There were no currants, raisins or other  ingredients
    to  fill the old Virginia recipe for mince  pie, and the children 
    considered that  at  least  a slice of  that  much-coveted dainty
    was their right and the price of indigestion paid for  it  was  a 
    debt  of  honor  [missing]  from them to the  season's exactions.   
    Apple trees grew  and  bore  in  spite of war's  alarms,  so  the 
    foundation   of   the  mixture  was  assured.  The  many  excited    
    housekeepers in Richmond had preserved all the fruits attainable,
    and  these  were  substituted for the  time-honored  raisins  and
    currants.   The   brandy required for seasoning  at  one  hundred
    dollars a  bottle   was  forthcoming,   the  cider  was obtained.   
    Suet  at  a  dollar a pound  was  ordered  --  and  the [missing]  
    seemed   a  blessed  certainty --  but  the  eggnog  -- [missing]  
    were  the  eggs  and  liquors  to  be procured  --  without which 
    Christmas would be a failure to the negroes.

EGGNOG FOR THE NEGROES.

          "If  it's  only a little wineglass,"  said  the  [missing],
    dusty-looking  negro rubber in the stables who [missing]  in  the
    back log (our substitute for the [missing] eggnog).  "I dunno how
    we  gwine  git  along without no eggnog."   So,  after  redoubled
    efforts,  the  liquors  and other  ingredients  were  secured  in
    admirable quantities.  The little jackets, pieced together out of
    such  cloth  remaining  when  uniforms were  turned  out  by  the
    tailors,  were issued to the children of the soldiers,  amid  the
    remonstrances  of  the mothers that the pattern of  them  "wasn't
    worth a cent."

          Rice, flour, molasses and tiny pieces of meat, most of them
    sent to the President's wife anonymously to be distributed to the
    poor,  had  all be weighed and issued, and the  playtime  of  the
    family began, but like a clap of thunder out of a clear sky  came
    the  information  that the orphans at the Episcopalian  home  had
    been promised a Christmas tree and the toys, candy and cakes must
    be  provided,  as well as one pretty prize for the  most  orderly
    girl  among  the  orphans.   The  kind-hearted  confectioner  was
    interviewed  by  our  committee of managers, and  he  promised  a
    certain  amount  of  his simpler kinds of candy,  which  he  sold
    easily  a  dollar  and a half a pound, but he drew  the  line  at
    cornucopias  to hold it, or sugared fruits to hang on  the  tree,
    and all the other vestiges of Christmas creations which had  lain
    on  his hands for years.  The ladies dispersed in anxious  squads
    of  toy-hunters,  and  each  one turned over  the  store  of  her
    children's treasures for a contribution to the orphans' tree,  my
    little ones rushed over the great house looking up their treasure
    eyeless  dolls,  three-legged  horses, tops with  the  upper  peg
    broken off, rubber tops, monkeys with all the squeak gone  silent
    and  all  the ruck of children's toys that gather  in  a  nursery
    closet.

MAKESHIFT TOYS FOR THE ORPHANS

         Some  small  feathered chickens and  parrots  which  nodded
    their heads in obedience to a weight beneath them were  furnished
    with  new  tail  feathers, lambs minus much of  their  wool  were
    supplied  with a cotton wool substitute, rag dolls  were  plumped
    out and recovered with clean cloth, and the young ladies  painted
    their  fat faces in bright colors and furnished them  with  beads
    for eyes.

         But  the tug of war was how to get something with  which  to
    decorate  the orphans' tree.  Our man servant, Robert Brown,  was
    much   interested  and  offered  to  make  the  prize  toy.    He
    contemplated a "sure enough house, with four rooms." His part  in
    the domestic service was delegated to another and he gave himself
    over in silence and solitude to the labors of the architect.
 
          My sister painted mantel shelves, door panels, pictures and
    frames  for  the walls, and finished with black grates  in  which
    their  blazed  a roaring fire, which was  pronounced  marvelously
    realistic.  We all made furniture of twigs and pasteboard, and my
    mother made pillows, mattresses, sheets and pillow cases for  the
    two little bedrooms.

          Christmas Eve a number of young people were invited to come
    and string apples and popcorn for the trees; a neighbor very deft
    in  domestic arts had tiny candle moulds made and  furnished  all
    the candles for the tree.  However the puzzle and triumph of  all
    was  the construction of a large number of cornucopias.  At  last
    someone  suggested  a  conical block of  wood,  about  which  the
    drawing paper could be wound and pasted.  In a little book shop a
    number  of  small, highly colored pictures cut out and  ready  to
    apply  were  unearthed,  and our  old  confectioner  friend,  Mr.
    Piazzi,  consented,  with a broad smile, to give  "all  the  love
    verses the young people wanted to roll with the candy."

A CHRISTMAS EVE PARTY

           About  twenty  young men and girls  gathered  around  small
    tables  in  one  of  the drawing rooms of  the  mansion  and  the
    cornucopias  were begun.  The men wrapped the squares  of  candy,
    first reading the "sentiments" printed upon them, such as  "Roses
    are  red, violets blue, sugar's sweet and so are you,"   "If  you
    love  me  as I love you no knife can cut our love in  two."   The
    fresh  young faces, wreathed in smiles, nodded attention  to  the
    reading,  while  with  their  small  deft  hands  they glued  the
    cornucopias and pasted on the pictures.  Where were the silk tops
    to come from?  Trunks of old things were turned out and snippings
    of silk and even woolen of bright colors were found to close  the
    tops, and some of the young people twisted sewing silk into cords
    with  which to draw the bags up.  The beauty of  those  home-made
    things  astonished us all, for they looked  quite  "custom-made,"
    but when the "sure enough house" was revealed to our longing gaze
    the  young people clapped their approbation, while Robert,  whose
    sense  of  dignity  did  not  permit  him  to  smile,  stood  the
    impersonation  of successful artist and bowed his thanks for  our
    approval.   Then  the coveted eggnog was passed  around  in  tiny
    glass cups and pronounced good.  Crisp home-made ginger snaps and
    snowy lady cake completed the refreshments of Christmas Eve.  The
    children  allowed  to  sit up and be noisy in  their  way  as  an
    indulgence took a sip of eggnog out of my cup, and the eldest boy
    confided to his father: "Now I just know this is Christmas."   In
    most  of the houses in Richmond these same scenes  were  enacted,
    certainly  in  every  one of the homes of  the  managers  of  the
    Episcopalian  Orphanage.   A  bowl  of eggnog  was  sent  to  the
    servants, and a part of everything they coveted of the dainties.

          At  last  quiet  settled on the  household  and  the  older
    members  of  the family began to stuff  stockings  with  molasses
    candy,  red apples, an orange, small whips plaited by the  family
    with high-colored crackers, worsted reins knitted at home,  paper
    dolls,  teetotums  made of large horn bottoms and a  match  which
    could  spin  indefinitely, balls of worsted rags wound  hard  and
    covered  with old kid gloves, a pair of pretty woolen gloves  for
    each, either cut of cloth and embroidered on the back or  knitted
    by some deft hand out of home-spun wool.  For the President there
    were   a  pair  of  chamois-skin  riding  gauntlets   exquisitely
    embroidered on the back with his monogram in red and white  silk,
    made, as the giver wrote, under the guns of Fortress Monroe  late
    at  night for fear of discovery.  There was a  hemstitched  linen
    handkerchief,  with  a  little sketch in  indelible  ink  in  one
    corner;  the  children  had written  him  little  letters,  their
    grandmother  having  held  their  hands,  the  burthen  of  which
    compositions  was how they loved their dear father.  For  one  of
    the  inmates  of  the  home, who  was  greatly  loved  but  whose
    irritable  temper was his prominent failing, their was  a  pretty
    cravat, the ends of which were embroidered, as was the fashion of
    the  day.  The pattern chosen was simple and on it was  pinned  a
    card  with the word "amiable" to complete the sentence.   One  of
    the  [missing]  received  a present of  an  illuminated  copy  of
    Solomon's  proverbs  found in the same old store from  which  the
    pictures came. He studied it for some time and announced: "I have
    changed  my  opinion  of Solomon,  he  uttered  such  unnecessary
    platitudes  -- now why should he have said 'The foolishness of  a
    fool  is  his folly'?"

         On Christmas morning the children awoke early and came in to
    see  their toys.  They were followed by the negro women, who  one
    after another "caught" us by wishing us a merry Christmas  before
    we  could say it to them, which gave them a right to a gift.   Of
    course, there was a present for every one, small though it  might
    be,  and one who had been born and brought up at  our  plantation
    was  vocal in her admiration of a gay handkerchief. As  she  left
    the room she ejaculated: "Lord knows mistress knows our  insides;
    she jest got the very thing I wanted."

MRS. DAVIS’ STRANGE PRESENTS

          For  me there were six cakes of delicious soap,  made  from
    the  grease of ham boiled for a family at Farmville, a  skein  of
    exquisitely fine gray linen thread spun at home, a pincushion  of
    some  plain  brown cotton material made by some  poor  woman  and
    stuffed  with  wool  from her pet sheep, and a  little  baby  hat
    plaited  by the orphans and presented by the  industrious  little
    pain  who  sewed  the straw together.   They  pushed  each  other
    silently  to  speak,  and at last mutely  offered  the  hat,  and
    considered  the  kiss  they gave the sleeping  little  one  ample
    reward  for the industry and far above the fruit with which  they
    were  laden.   Another present was a fine, delicate  little  baby
    frock  without  an inch of lace or embroidery upon  it,  but  the
    delicate  fabric was set with fairy stitches by the dear  invalid
    neighbor who made it, and it was very precious in my eyes.  There
    were also a few of Swinburne's best songs bound in wall-paper and
    a  chamois needlebook left for me by young Mr. P., now  succeeded
    to his title in England. In it was a Brobdinagian thimble "for my
    own finger, you know," said the handsome, cheerful young fellow.
 
           After breakfast, at which all the family, great and  small,
    were present, came the walk to St. Paul's Church.  We did not use
    our carriage on Christmas or, if possible to avoid it, on Sunday.
    The saintly Dr. Minnegerode preached a sermon on Christian  love,
    the  introit was sung by a beautiful young society woman and  the
    angels  might have joyfully listened.  Our chef did wonders  with
    the  turkey and roast beef, and drove the children quite  out  of
    their propriety by a spun sugar hen, life-size, on a nest full of
    blanc mange eggs.  The mince pie and plum pudding made them feel,
    as one of the gentlemen laughingly remarked, "like their  jackets
    were  buttoned," a strong description of repletion which  I  have
    never  forgotten.  They waited with great impatience and  evident
    dyspeptic  symptoms for the crowning amusement of the  day,  "the
    children's  tree."   My  eldest boy, a chubby  little  fellow  of
    seven, came to me several times to whisper: "Do you think I ought
    to give the orphans my I.D. studs?"  When told no, he beamed with
    the  delight  of  an approving conscience.   All  throughout  the
    afternoon first one little head and then another popped in at the
    door  to ask: "Isn't it 8 o'clock yet?," burning with  impatience
    to see the "children's tree."

DAVIS HELPED SANTA CLAUS

          When  at last we reached the basement of St. Paul's  Church
    the tree burst upon their view like the realization of  Aladdin's
    subterranean orchard, and they were awed by its grandeur.
           The  orphans sat mute with astonishment until  the  opening
    hymn and prayer and the last amen had been said, and then they at
    a  signal warily and slowly gathered around the tree  to  receive
    from  a lovely young girl their allotted present.  The  different
    gradations from joy to ecstasy which illuminated their faces  was
    "worth two years of peaceful life" to see.  The President  became
    so  enthusiastic that he undertook to help in  the  distribution,

    but  worked such wild confusion giving everything asked for  into
    their outstretched hands, that we called a halt, so he  contented
    himself  with unwinding one or two tots from a network of  strung
    popcorn  in  which they had become entangled and taking  off  all
    apples  he  could  when unobserved, and presenting  them  to  the
    smaller children.  When at last the house was given to the "honor
    girl"  she moved her lips without emitting a sound, but  held  it
    close to her breast and went off in a corner to look and be  glad
    without witnesses.

          "When the lights were fled, the garlands dead, and all  but
    we  departed" we also went home to find that Gen. Lee had  called
    in  our absence, and many other people.  Gen. Lee had  left  word
    that he had received a barrel of sweet potatoes for us, which had
    been  sent  to him by mistake.  He did not discover  the  mistake
    until  he had taken his share (a dishful) and given the  rest  to
    the soldiers!  We wished it had been much more for them and him.

OFFICERS IN A STARVATION DANCE

          The  night  closed with a "starvation" party,  where  there
    were no refreshments, at a neighboring house.  The rooms  lighted
    as  well as practicable, some one willing to play dance music  on
    the  piano  and  plenty  of young men  and  girls  comprised  the
    entertainment.   Sam  Weller's soiry[sic], consisting  of  boiled
    mutton  and  capers,  would  have  been  a  royal  feast  in  the
    Confederacy.   The officers, who rode into town with  their  long
    cavalry  boots pulled well up over their knees, but  splashed  up
    their waists, put up their horses and rushed to the places  where
    their  dress uniform suits had been left for  safekeeping.   They
    very soon emerged, however, in full toggery and entered into  the
    pleasures of their dance with the bright-eyed girls, who many  of
    them were fragile as fairies, but worked like peasants for  their
    home  and country.  These young people are gray-haired  now,  but
    the lessons of self-denial, industry and frugality in which  they
    became  past  mistresses  then,  have  made  of  them  the   most
    dignified, self-reliant and tender women I have ever known -- all
    honor to them.

          So,  in the interchange of the courtesies and charities  of
    life,  to  which  we could not add its  comforts  and  pleasures,
    passed the last Christmas in the Confederate mansion.

VARINA JEFFERSON DAVIS

This newspaper clipping is included among the Jefferson Davis Papers at Rice University.

This appeared as an article in the November/December 1995 issue of the Camp Chase Gazette. Excerpts of the above appear in an excellent book called “We Were Marching on Christmas Day” by Kevin Rawlings (ISBN 0-9612670-4-6 $24.95 Toomey Press; P.O. Box 122; Linthicum, MD 21090 410-850-0831). If you have any comments about the web page, drop me a line.

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