1863: “Only Five Pairs Of Stockings Over The Fireplace Tonight”

December 24, 1863

…Tonight got the children washed and put to bed and after they went to sleep filled the stockings and boiled some molasses for taffy. Father attempted to attend to the boiling but after waiting till ten o’clock he gave it up in despair and left Grandma, Ma and me alone in our glory. Did not get through till after twelve o’clock. Poor children! I contrast their limited means of enjoyment now with our former happy life and it makes me sad. 

Ah! Dear, tomorrow will be a lonely, dreary day for me with none of the dear ones we were expecting – not even Nellie and Laura. There are only five pairs of stockings over the fireplace tonight and there are five of our house circle absent – five hearts no doubt turning longingly this way tonight. God bless them! One of the very loneliest nights I ever saw.

December 25, 1863

Children up very early. A lovely day clear and bright. Helped the children with the contents of their stockings and then proceeded to clean up. Dressed after breakfast and went off upstairs to take a good cry for my heart was full of sad and pleasant thoughts and memories and I was so lonely – missed the dear absentees. Felt better after crying awhile and went downstairs with Ma and Grandma. Uncle Newton sick. Father went out to see him. Charlie Buck spent an hour or so with us. Cheery boy that he is – tried to play and sing for him but had to give over the attempts in despair. Then Uncle John came. He was not well and lay down. Then Uncle Tom who remained to eat our orthodox turkey and mince pies. Wonder where the poor boys got their Christmas dinners this year or if they had any poor fellows?…

Miss Lucy Rebecca Buck, journal excerpts December 24 and 25, 1863

Lucy Rebecca Buck (image from FindAGrave)

Lucy Rebecca

Twenty-one years old in 1863, Lucy Rebecca Buck lived with her family at their large home, Bel Air, near Front Royal, Virginia. Front Royal sits in the Shenandoah Valley – southeast of Winchester at the entrance to the smaller Luray Valley. In 1863, both Union and Confederate infantry and cavalry had maneuvered through the area and passed Bel Air, giving Lucy Rebecca a firsthand look at campaigning and war.

As the third oldest of thirteen children, she had many responsibilities – especially after the enslaved people decided to run to freedom, leaving her wondering why freedom was important. Despite this insensitivity, Lucy Rebecca was generally a caring person – spending much of her time looking after younger siblings, visiting family and friends in the area, and writing to loved ones in the military. Her Christian faith supported her through the war and is often evident in her journaling.

Lucy Rebecca survived the Civil War, but her journal entries became less frequent in 1864 as she “lost heart” during the final Union campaign in the autumn and struggled through the daily confrontations with Yankees. Fortunately, her journal survived, was transcribed and published by a descendant, and offers a look at a young woman’s war experience in Front Royal.

A sketch of the family home, Bel Air. Originally published in the first edition of Lucy’s journal.

Christmas 1863

For Lucy Rebecca, Christmas 1863 brought a wave of memories. Her two brothers – Alvin and Irving – were absent with the Confederate army and she constantly worried about their safety. Her cousin, Walter, had been killed in the war and her remembrances of him and his death saddened her; during 1863, Cousin Walter’s “empty chair” is the one most significant to her and she was still grieving his loss.

However, even with the worry and the sadness, Lucy Rebecca made a sincere effort to make a happy Christmas for the children. They would have their stockings and little presents, molasses taffy, and dinner with turkey and mince pies. Still, the festivities of the day compared to celebrations in previous years made her weary and disheartened. And in the end, she still had to wonder if her absent brothers had any sort of Christmas dinner.

Her Christmas entries are similar to many written by Southern women during Christmas 1863. War’s difficulties had increased and the absences of family members caused strain in relationships or continued grief. But, like Lucy Rebecca, most prepared to be as cheerful as possible and have a little celebration to make the day special for soldiers or little ones.

Historical Musings

Christmas brings thoughts of home to those who are absent, a longing to be there or somewhere filled with warmth, love, and laughter. Christmas also brings memories – good and difficult. As I’ve read various letters and journal entries penned during December 1863, I’ve been reminded that through the time of celebration there is also a need for quiet.

Not everyone needs a blaring “Merry Christmas.” Sometimes, folks are going through sad or rough times. Or maybe memories of an absent loved one are filling their holidays. Sometimes, they need a peaceful and quiet wish and gathering – a chance to celebration without feeling the ache caused by over-much holiday hilarity.

As I read Lucy Rebecca’s entries, I wish someone had been there to give her a hug. While I understand the need the privacy and solitude, I wish she had not had to cry alone in her room. I’ve been there. It’s been six years now, but I still remember the Christmas after I lost one of my teachers and best friends. I needed quiet, I needed someone to try to understand, I needed someone to say “Merry Christmas” softly.

I realize that’s quite personal to share on a history blog. But it’s been on my mind these last few days. I didn’t write this to made anyone feel bad, but I’m trying to say that if you’re struggling this Christmas with situations or memories I just want to whisper “Merry Christmas.” Hang the stockings by the fireplace, boil the molasses taffy, and know that it’s alright to have mixed feelings. The important thing – and we see this in Lucy Rebecca’s writing – is to hold to strengthening faith and remember the reasons for Christmas in the best way that we can.

[whispered] Merry Christmas…

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

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