How the Civil War Inspired 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'

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iStock

It may not be as popular as "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," but “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a holiday classic. In case you need a refresher, here’s Bing Crosby’s rendition:

Nearly 10 years before it was a song, the composition was a Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem called “Christmas Bells.” It had been a tough couple of years for Longfellow. In 1861, his wife suffered a terrible death right in front of his eyes. Fanny Longfellow had been trimming their 7-year-old daughter’s hair and decided to preserve some of the curls in sealing wax. Something went wrong during the process—some say a gust of wind blew the hot wax onto her dress, while others blame a self-lighting match—and Fanny's dress went up in flames. She ran into her husband’s study for help; he burned himself badly trying to put her out. But his efforts were for naught; she died the next morning and he was too injured to attend her funeral.

In 1863, their 17-year-old son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, ran away to enlist in the Union Army. He left his father a note, explaining, "You know for how a long time I have been wanting to go to war I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer, I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good God Bless you all."

The commanding officer knew the family and contacted the elder Longfellow, who gave his consent despite being very much against it. Charley hadn’t been in the service long when he contracted malaria and typhoid fever and had to come home to recover. Though he was gravely ill, the diseases turned out to be a blessing in disguise: While he was at home getting well, Charley missed the Battle of Gettysburg, which killed or wounded more than 51,000 soldiers. Charley returned to his post in August, and on December 1, his father received devastating news: His young son had been shot during the Battle of Mine Run on November 27, with a bullet clipping his spine. Surgeons warned the family that Charles may never walk again.

Amazingly, Charley made a full recovery. But when Longfellow put pen to paper to write “Christmas Bells,” he definitely had the horrors of the Civil War on his mind. Composer John Baptiste Calkin put the words to music in 1872, but when you hear the song performed these days, the two verses that obviously refer to the War Between the States are usually left out:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The Most Popular Christmas Movie in Each State

dusanpetkovic/iStock via Getty Images
dusanpetkovic/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone has a favorite classic holiday movie, from 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life to 1983’s A Christmas Story to 1988’s Die Hard, which may or may not fit the criteria for a festive film depending on who you ask. Home advice website House Method decided to see if those favorites varied by state. To find out, the site polled 4580 people and compiled the results into handy infographics.

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by state is pictured
House Method

As you can see, A Christmas Story dominates the country, with 24 states and a total of 12.8 percent of respondents naming it their favorite. The 2003 Will Ferrell comedy Elf came in second, with 11 states and 11.2 percent of the vote. Rounding out the top five—when looking at the overall percentage—are 1990’s Home Alone and It’s a Wonderful Life, with a dark horse—1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas—scoring 6.3 percent of voting and winning over Tennessee. Nebraska was an outlier, naming 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation their favorite.

Here’s how it breaks down by count according to state:

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by state is pictured
House Method

By percentage is where animated classics like 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas rank:

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by percentage of votes is pictured
House Method

Kansas and Vermont selected Die Hard, an often-contentious choice. (The film is set during Christmas in Los Angeles, with Bruce Willis’s everyman cop forced to battle terrorists in Nakatomi Plaza during a holiday party.) House Method decided to throw in a bonus question: Does the film qualify as a Christmas movie? The survey says no, with nearly 60 percent declaring it ineligible for holiday status. Sorry, Bruce.

An infographic depicting survey results about 'Die Hard' being a Christmas movie is pictured
House Method

[h/t House Method]

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

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iStock

For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

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