"…it's a bookend to [The] Long Christmas Ride Home, in which we follow through private trauma that for this moment in time became public but then goes back into the privacy of the family. [A Civil War Christmas] is sort of a bookend about how major public trauma that struck and divided and divorced a nation resonates down to every single family. And every single family has to look at that pain and we have to find a way of survival. . . . We have ancestors in the room at Christmas. Or Hanukah when we light those lights, you know? We are thanking the ones that went before us around our hearth. And that, too, is a way that we examine who we are as Americans."
- Playwright Paula Vogel
in a September 2008 interview
A Civil War Christmas is not the first of Paula Vogel's plays to have "Christmas" in the title. Her play The Long Christmas Ride Home, which Long Wharf produced in January 2004, begins on Christmas Eve "decades and days ago/On the outskirts of Washington, D.C./just inside the Beltway."
On that particular Christmas, Vogel suspends a single moment in a family's car ride home from church when the private turmoil of two parents becomes briefly, violently public. The play then reveals the proliferation of this trauma on future Christmases in the children's lives.
Also set on Christmas Eve in Washington, D.C., A Civil War Christmas looks at the holiday from the opposite angle. Taking a time of nationwide violence that historians have analyzed to exhaustion, Vogel considers its personal impact on Americans - how families and strangers, friends and foe intersected on the coincidence of the holiday with the war.
In A Civil War Christmas, as in The Long Christmas Ride Home, Christmas Eve is a moment of potential, when people, actions and ideas intersect with an unknowable resultant course. When their father angrily draws back his hand on the car ride home from church, each child in the backseat wonders whether he or she could have done something to change the trajectory of the forthcoming slap.
And when the lives of a soldier, a slave child and a president all hang equally in the balance on Christmas Eve, 1864, one can only wonder how easily the course of history might have changed. Both plays capture a convergence of past and future, public and private, personal and political, that seems only to be possible at Christmas.
A SCENE FROM THE 2004 LONG WHARF PRODUCTION OF A LONG CHRISTMAS RIDE HOME
After all, Christmas is by nature a point of convergence. In Christianity, the Nativity represents the intersection of Christ's human and divine qualities. In history, December 25 marked the intersection of the early Christian holy day with ancient pagan feasts for the winter solstice.
And in America, the weeks of late December find the intersection of multiple religious, cultural and civic celebrations: Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza and the occasional Ramadan; the changing season and the New Year; a break from work, a recess from school, a federal holiday; an unofficially declared family reunion and unique (momentary) melding of capitalism and generosity.
In other nations, Christmas remains a more distinctly religious holiday. But in America, Christmas has become nationalized reminder that individual beliefs, cultures, social classes and even political inclinations have to coexist here.
The holiday took on this character in the wake of the Civil War. Prior to the 1860s Americans observed comparatively fewer holidays than Europeans. Eighteenth- and early 19th-century American Christmases spanned the spectrum from Puritan denunciation of the holiday in New England, to imported German and Dutch customs in the middle colonies, to grand observances on Southern plantations that even granted a holiday to slaves.
But on the four Christmases during the Civil War, conscientious attempts were made to keep the holiday for soldiers and civilians alike. "Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households," wrote Harper's Weekly on December 26, 1863, "even while war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled - ought it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?"
During the postwar Reconstruction - ideological and economic - Americans latched onto Christmas as a part of a new national identity; in 1870 it became a national holiday. Indeed, Christmas in America seems inextricably linked to reconstruction; Christmas Eve, to a moment of hope for a better outcome before beginning again.
Between the bookends of A Civil War Christmas and , Vogel points to the connective tissue of family, community and history through which individual pain and national conflict affect one another.
In doing so she uncovers ongoing tragedy alongside the usual Christmas merriment. But through the shared holiday setting of the two plays, Vogel also seems to suggest that Christmas is a chance to end that tragedy, an annual moment of convergence among personal and political, past and present, when change is especially possible.
— Long Wharf Theatre