Historical Christmas Stories Evoke Timeless Emotions

Minerva Sharman is shown here at age 12 in a photo dating to about 1908. Minerva recalls having sent a letter to Santa Claus and later wondering how it turned up hidden in her sofa. (Photo courtesy of Steve Robbins)

By Lura Jackson

Over the past few hundred years, we have shared many Christmases as a community. Some of those holidays have been wondrous, and some of them have been sad. Together, we have shared in wonder and merriment on the one hand and in tragedy and loss on the other. While each of us has our own personal recollections to reflect back upon, we are also occasionally the benefactors of written journals and historical records of those holidays that happened long ago. Two such stories are collected below; one is joyous in its simple rekindling of the memories of childhood mystery, and the other shares a sad moment in Calais history. 

 A Robbinston Christmas Story, ~1901

The first story comes to us from Steve Robbins, who had the pleasure of interviewing his grandmother, Minerva (Sharman) Gray in the 1970s about her life growing up in Robbinston. Robbins took notes of his interviews with Minerva, who he shares had a “remarkable” mind and memory even until her passing in December of the year 2000 at the age of 104. This story dates to approximately 1901-1902, according to Robbins, and it is compiled mainly from his notes. 

One day, Minerva had written a letter to Santa Claus, or someone may have written it for her. The letter expressed to Santa Minerva’s wish for him to bring her grandmother, Almira (Loring) Nash (1825-1903), a red dress. “Minerva thought that her Grammie would look better in red than in the black that she always wore,” Robbins writes. After Christmas, Minerva confided to her cousin Helen Nash that she wondered what happened to her letter. Helen said, “Maybe Santa put it in that hole,” Robbins writes, describing how Helen was referring to a couch in the living room with a hole in it from where people’s heels had worn through. Minerva reached in, and sure enough, the note was there! “How did Helen know?” Minerva wondered.

Unfortunately, Robbins does not remember finding out if Santa came through on the request for a red dress for Grammie Nash, but the tale evokes a simpler time in many ways.

Heartbreak at Christmas Time, 1863

The second story returns us to the time of the Civil War, when Washington County mustered among the highest numbers of troops for the conflict in the country. Several men and women from the Calais region travelled to the south to aid in the war efforts, including two brothers by the last name of Coy.

According to Dr. Ken Ross of the St. Croix Historical Society, who published Washington County, Maine in the Civil War, 1861-1866, the youngest brother, William, joined the Union efforts as part of Company D in July of 1861 at the tender age of 18. His older brother, John, joined a year later in August at the age of 27 as part of Company K. Both brothers would wind up fighting at Rappahannock Station in Virginia on the fateful battle of November 7th, 1863.

Rappahannock was held by a Louisiana brigade, but the 6th Division – of which the Coy brothers were both members – managed to overrun the fort through their impressive hand-to-hand combat skills. There were many impressive moments during the battle, including one when Ira McLaughlin of Calais prevented a cannoneer from firing into the Union troops by skillfully knocking the man out with his rifle. 

At the end of the day, the 321 men of the 6th Division that captured the well-defended fort from the 178 Confederates had endured a difficult victory. 38 were killed, including young William Coy, and 21 were wounded, including brother John. 

In his afore-mentioned book, Ross records the following words from Captain Theodore Lincoln, Jr., from Dennysville: “[Rappahannock was] the most desperate fight of the war.  Our men got out of ammunition and fought with bayonets, clubbed their guns and captured one gun by stoning the gunners away.” Per Captain Charles Stone of Machias, “Few, very few would care to stand on the battlefield before that little band of tired, unflinching, determined men.”

For the Coy family, who would later receive news of the loss of young William, the victory was surely bittersweet. Sadly, as the weeks progressed the news became grimmer still for the family, as John perished from his wounds on December 23rd. Post-conflict deaths were common in the Civil War, largely due to a lack of modern treatment methods and resources. In John’s case, his leg had to be amputated from the gunshot wound, but the operation would claim his life. 

Aside from his parents, Jane and Solomon, John’s loss was deeply mourned by his wife, Mary, and their three young children. A few years later, Mary, too, would pass, leaving the three children as orphans. Happily, they would later enjoy a wonderful life on the farm in Wisconsin when their grandparents brought them there.

 

The Civil War broke up many families, inevitably and irrevocably shaping the futures of those left behind. For some of the survivors of the war’s casualties, new ways were found to mend and grow together, illustrating the best of life’s lessons – one that carries us into the new year with a reminder of what we can heal through when surrounded by friends and family. 

Sending letters to Santa Claus has been a long-standing tradition in Down East Maine and elsewhere, as this classic image illustrates. (Image courtesy of Steve Robbins)