General Lee and Santa Claus. Written by Louise Clack. Modern revision by Randall Bedwell.
Release Date: 1867; December 1997.
Original Available Here.
We’re in the heart of the holiday season and it seems fitting and proper to offer up some Civil War Christmas content for your perusal. Fortunately, I’ve had just such an item sitting on my bookshelf for almost a decade. Back before Amazon, I had to subscribe to a Civil War book catalog to get a sense of what was out there. One issue prominently featured the hilariously titled General Lee and Santa Claus. Of course, I immediately ordered it for laughs and out of morbid curiosity. As with most such purchases, it’s sat unread on my bookshelf ever since—at least until now.
Even before opening it, I didn’t know what to make of a children’s book that paired one of America’s most successful generals with a magical elf-man who lives on the top of the world, and I don’t feel much differently after reading it. The copy I own is a 1997 revision for modern readers, but its story was more than a little awkward, so I decided I was better off reading the 1867 original. There are minor differences, but the general plot is the same. Three young southern girls (sisters in the 1997 version, 2 sisters with a cousin in the original), Lutie, Birdie, and Minnie, are talking about Christmas and their father/uncle who died in the war. All three are upset about this, but it’s had a particular impact on Minnie, “a famous little rebel. You would think, to hear her talk sometimes, that the war was still going on, and that she was commander-in-chief of the Southern forces.” Minnie is so thoroughly unreconstructed and “constant to our lost cause” that she hates Santa Claus because “he never came to the Southern children for four Christmas Eves.”
The book then goes off on a huge tangent, as the girls’ aunt Sarah asks them to take naps and dream. She wants to record their dreams in a little book, which she’ll sell to support southern families left destitute by the war. Only Minnie’s dream has anything to do with the plot, but we nevertheless get lengthy descriptions of each. Lutie and Birdie’s go first recounting beautiful Grecian pastroal fantasies, but Minnie brings the whole affair down by sharing her horrifying nightmare. Her dream begins with a visit from her father but he soon disappears and she’s dragged away by “a dark, fierce-looking man” to Hell before angels and possibly Jesus Christ himself save her (the 1997 edition tames this down substantially).
Minnie’s vision unsurprisingly leaves the girls traumatized, so Sarah decides to cheer them up by having them write a letter to Lee asking if Santa hates southern children. The letter is unsurprisingly worshipful and Lee responds quickly, reporting that he knows Santa personally. Two of the most famous white beards in history apparently ran into each other when Santa was flying over the Confederate camps during the winter of 1861. Lee ordered Santa to stop and sell all of the southern childrens’ toys at Baltimore in exchange for food and supplies to provision the needy Confederate troops. Santa—apparently a secessionist—responded, “I follow orders, general,” and complied for the remainder of the war, making the North Pole equivalent to Great Britain on the list of unofficial Confederate allies. Of course, the children are delighted by the story and Minnie’s faith in Santa is restored. The final twist is that they make their book after all, resulting in (surprise!) the very book you are reading (the 1997 edition leaves out this last detail and instead has the lost father return home on Christmas Eve).
I normally don’t spend much time summarizing plots, but this is all so loaded I couldn’t resist. There are a bunch of ways to analyze this bizarre narrative, but let’s stick to politics. One of the most striking things is how clearly the book reflects the already growing divisions between die hard unreconstructed Confederates and reconciliationsts in the South. That the book aligns itself with the latter camp and uses Lee as the primary symbol for peace is telling. Lee certainly advocated for reconciliation in 1867, but only if paired with the Lost Cause—specifically the belief that the South did not fight for slavery and suffered defeat only due to overwhelming northern manpower and supplies.The book embodies this stance by chiding Minnie for hating the North but presenting a portrait of the southern army as so destitute that Santa himself had to supply provisions. The cause itself goes unmentioned, but surely must have been noble if Father Christmas intervened on its behalf. General Lee and Santa Claus is a pretty rough read, but as a relic of southern reactions to defeat and Reconstruction, it’s surprisingly revealing.
- Apparently, all the money made by the 1997 edition was supposed to go to Stratford Hall. I hope my money did, it’s a great site.
- Just as the book reflects Lee’s rise into the pantheon of American historical legends, it also shows Santa’s increasing prominence in Christmas culture. It directly quotes the first substantial literary work about Santa, 1823’s A Visit from St. Nicholas (better known today as Twas The Night Before Christmas) and came only 3 years after the first successful Christmas song solely about Santa, 1864’s “Up on the Housetop.”
- Another interesting aspect of the developing Lost Cause in the book is its focus on women. Even by 1867, widows and orphaned daughters were becoming the primary symbols of the Confederate home front. As I’ve noted previously, 20th Century pop culture would pick this up and run with it.
- In the 1997 edition, the Confederate father is a balloon scout. Was there such a position in the Confederate Army? Only the Union used balloons, right?
- Does it mention slavery?: Not a whit, and there’s the rub. The Lost Cause can only function if slavery and black civil rights are left out of the narrative.
- Happy holidays and see you next year. 2016 should be a good one for the Civil War in pop culture, with The Hateful Eight and Mercy Street starting things off and The Free State of Jones slotted for May.
Next Entry: The Hateful Eight
But Thomas Nast gave us Santa Claus, and Nast’s Santa was a staunch supporter of the Union.
Maybe I should have compared him to France—working both sides at once.