Play shares power of letters at Christmas between Civil War soldiers, loved ones

A new live play at Conner Prairie shares the power of letters at Christmas between Civil War soldiers and their loved ones. The play’s run began today and continues through this Saturday and Sunday, as well as four dates in December.

By Ephraim Rudolph

An original live play about the meaning and the magic of mail at Christmastime during the Civil War era, titled “Tales at the Holidays: Letters from the Civil War,” is now showing at Conner Prairie.

Bill Wilkison wrote and directs the play, which is inspired by the Thomas Nast illustration “Christmas Eve,” published in the Christmas 1862 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Performances of the play began today, and will continue Saturday and Sunday at 12:30, 2 and 3:30 p.m. It will also run at those same times on Dec. 2, 9, 16 and 23. The play is free with paid general admission to Conner Prairie, and it is showing inside the Lilly Theater on the second floor of the Welcome Center.

The roots of the modern Santa Claus tradition can be traced to Nast’s artwork, which depicts St. Nicholas poised over a chimney at top left and delivering gifts to a Civil War encampment at top right. Nast’s early St. Nicholas, from a time seven decades prior to the 1930s Coca-Cola ads that would define Santa Claus in the cultural imagination, sits at the periphery of the illustration. Its primary focus is on the bond shared between a Civil War soldier and his wife and family on Christmas Eve, through prayers and letters.

Letters from home were of paramount significance to soldiers. When not engaged in battle or sharing stories and coffee back at the encampment, they were usually stooped over a piece of worn parchment, ink and quill in hand.

“I started looking at the Civil War period as a time when the American idea of Santa Claus was just beginning to pick up steam,” Wilkison (left) said. “With Santa Claus at the edges of this play, I saw a great opportunity for modern audiences to connect with stories from Christmas during the Civil War.”

The protagonist of the play is an elf who has been tasked with developing a more efficient postal system for the North Pole during the Civil War era. “The truth of this time period is that it was extremely difficult to move mail,” Wilkison said. “There were two separate and competing postal services in the North and the South, and those lines didn’t cross.”

“People at home and on the battlefield were writing constantly, but many of the letters didn’t have correct postage or addresses, and they were often just completely illegible. These undeliverable letters were forwarded by the North and South postal services to holding depots called dead letter offices, where staffs of trustworthy clergymen and townswomen would work with geography experts to identify the letters’ intended destinations.”

According to Wilkison, an average of 18,000 letters were delivered to dead letter offices every day of the Civil War. Approximately 40% of those letters were sent on to a final destination, while the other 60% were discreetly destroyed.

“That’s where our play comes in. While trying to develop a more effective means of delivering mail during the Civil War era, our elf protagonist ends up in a dead letter office,” Wilkison said. “She learns about the beauty and meaning of letters and how difficult it is to write, deliver and read them during this time. Ultimately, this play is about the hope signified by letters, particularly at Christmas, and that is what our elf protagonist learns and takes with her as she builds a better postal service for Santa.”

“Tales at the Holidays: Letters from the Civil War” is an intimate, two-person play that focuses on a conversation between one of Santa’s elves and a postal service staffer at the dead letter office.

Woven into their discussion are readings of three letters from Civil War soldiers. “They are representations of the letters, some of which we have edited for time and appropriate content. We have tried to stay as true to the original content, tone and authorship as possible,” said Wilkison.

“The incredible thing about all of these letters is that, barring the mention of specific locations, they all share very similar themes,” Wilkison said. “They’re writing to, and about, their friends and loved ones; and about the camaraderie between soldiers, even across enemy lines. At Christmas, soldiers on both sides just wanted to be safe and feel loved.”

“We’re all very inspired by the play, and we’ve worked to make it a hopeful holiday experience for all ages. The challenge was melding Christmas, which is very light, and the Civil War, which is very heavy, to create a meaningful play that pays service to each of them.”