Santa was dressed in red-and-white-striped pants, a blue jacket with white stars, and tall black boots. His beard was white, his glasses were wire-rimmed and his eyes had a twinkle. The Civil War Santa was a Union man named Kevin Rawlings who had come to Frederick looking for good children to tell him their requests. He leaned close to hear this particular child.
Emma Bulger, 5, of Herndon seemed in awe of the man with all the questions.
"Have you been nice to your sister?"
She slid her eyes toward her mother and then nodded.
"Do you keep your room nice and clean?"
She didn't move.
"You wouldn't want me to trip over your clothes, do you?" Rawlings asked her. She shook her head no.
"A nice, clean room is a good thing," he said. "And what would you like Santa to bring to you?"
"I don't know," she whispered.
"Should I bring you a nice surprise?"
"Yes," she said, nodding her head vigorously.
Her sister, Virginia, 8, was ready when the big question was asked: "MP3 player and iDog."
Malcolm Colson, 9, of Brooklyn, N.Y., also was ready: "Nintendo GameCube and the new Game Boy."
Ziad Lien of Chevy Chase was going low-tech this year: "A tow truck and Hot Wheels."
Rawlings was undeterred by any of the requests, nodding his head thoughtfully, then asking each child to remember the milk and cookies for him and the carrots for his reindeer.
Besides being a wonderful Santa, Rawlings also is an expert on the subject of Christmas traditions during the War Between the States. He is the author of "We Were Marching on Christmas Day: A History and Chronicle of Christmas During the Civil War," a book that is out of print but will be published again in a revised edition, he said.
At Frederick's National Museum of Civil War Medicine, the exhibit on Christmas during the war is largely drawn from his private collection.
As Santa, Rawlings, of Sharpsburg, Md., is booked most days of December but never on Christmas Eve; on that night he is home with his family. He doesn't do a Confederate Santa because he has found no record of anyone ever playing that role for the Southern states during the war. He did find a drawing by Thomas Nast of a Christmas scene with a Santa in Union costume, and he modeled his outfit after the one in that drawing. That picture is part of the exhibit.
Late last month, he was at the museum for the opening and to greet visitors. In addition to candy canes, he handed out small rolls of Necco Wafers. They were popular in the 1860s and are still available. Parents, who stood by with cameras ready, said they remembered the candy from their childhood, although none of the children seemed to recognize it. Neccos went into pockets, and candy canes were unwrapped.
There is much more than candy that connects us to the Civil War Christmas era. Many of the present-day customs had their start between the 1820s and 1840s and were well established by the 1860s. Fourteen states had made Christmas an official holiday by 1860, and by the end of the war, 13 more had joined that list. It became a federal holiday in 1870.
Godey's Lady's Book, a popular U.S. magazine, published a picture in 1850 of Queen Victoria and her decorated Christmas tree. In 1856, President Franklin Pierce put the first Christmas tree in the White House, and by the end of the decade, the custom was widely established.
Tradition back then was to decorate the tree on Christmas Eve, behind the closed doors of the parlor. Candles were arranged on tree limbs, and unwrapped presents hung on the boughs. (Wrapping paper would come later, in the 1880s.)
When the decorating was finished, the candles were lighted and the doors flung open to the delight of the waiting family.
Children could expect books, toys, candy, musical instruments and rocking horses. Newspaper ads of the time suggested Mother would like a sewing machine and Father a microscope. For either, books, stationery and clothes were always good choices.
Although soldiers seemed grateful for the touches of home when gift boxes arrived filled with coffee, cookies, cakes, sweaters and socks, merchants advertised high-ticket items such as binoculars or a portable stove as the best gift for the relative or friend in the field.
Stockings also were a tradition by the 1860s, although Rawlings's research shows that there was a debate over whether it was right to do both stockings and a tree. One newspaper reported that Christmas trees "had ruled the hanging up of stockings out of order," but another publication posed the question of which tradition was the most stylish.
Stockings were what Union Lt. Robert Gould Shaw -- who later led the Massachusetts 54th Regiment -- recalled when he wrote to his Boston family on Christmas Eve, 1861, from a camp near Frederick.
"It began to snow about midnight, and I suppose no one ever had a better chance of seeing 'Santa Claus'; but as I had my stockings on, he probably thought it not worth his while to come down to the guard tent. I didn't see any of the guard's stockings pinned up outside their tent; and indeed it is contrary to army regulations for them to divest themselves of any part of their clothing during the twenty-four hours."
On that day, he wrote his family, he was grateful for the gifts of coffee, toast and a new book to read.
Linda Wheeler can be reached at 540-465-8934 or firstname.lastname@example.org.