No Tree. No Cards. And, the President worked all day. Not unusual at all during the Civil War.
Some historians suggest that Abraham Lincoln was concerned with his public image and did not want to appear frivolous while a war was going on. Others have written that he lacked interest in Christmas and rejected religious rituals, and some even claim that he used work as an excuse to get away from his difficult wife. Actually, these are all unfair criticisms of the man, disguised as historical explanations, by those who want to chip away at his image.
So why then, was the Lincoln White House so stark on Christmas? Foremost, Abraham Lincoln wore the heavy duty of Presidential responsibility like a leaden cloak; it enveloped him and he could only rarely take it off. However, this was self-imposed, not due to any concerns about perceptions by his critics. To him, there was a destructive war tearing the country apart, young men were dying, and there were daily decisions to be made; and, ultimately, he was the one in charge.
However, there were also practical reasons the Lincoln White House did not have a tree, or send cards, for Christmas. First, the placement of large Christmas trees in homes and public places was not a universal custom in the United States during the mid-1800s; more likely found in the northeastern regions and in settlements with a significant German or Scandinavian presence. In fact, there had never been a Christmas tree in the White House; although some false narratives claim that Franklin Pearce had one in 1853. Even if a tree were desired by Lincoln or any of his predecessors, it would not have lasted very long. The White House was more open to the public (and relatively unguarded) in those days and a large Christmas tree in the White house would have been stripped by souvenir seekers; who were already notorious for cutting snips from curtains and carpets and stealing any small trinkets. Also, the concept of sending and receiving Christmas cards was not yet wide-spread, and any Christmas sentiment was usually in the form of personal notes to close friends and family. However, both the customs of decorated trees and pre-printed Christmas cards were already gaining favor in England; in part due to the success of Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carol” published in 1843. Dickens’s book promoted more of a family festival to accompany the solemn religious practices which had been prominent for centuries. The European influences gradually took hold in America and decorated trees, Christmas cards, and gifts for children became the accepted norm later in the century.
But, in the 1840s and 1850s, in Illinois, there were few Christmas trees, holiday cards, or elaborate gifts for children; however, it was a day celebrated by most families, including Abraham Lincoln, his wife Mary, and their sons.
Before he became President, previous Christmas holidays were happier, but still restrained, in the Lincoln family home; which, in many ways, reflected the regional customs. Those who lived in, or were from, the New England and the southern states, celebrated a more robust Christmas season than did most of those on the frontier, which included, at the time, Illinois. Abraham and Mary Lincoln never participated in the relatively new trend of sending out Christmas cards nor did they have a decorated tree; as not very many people in Illinois followed either custom. The Lincolns did give small Christmas gifts to their children, usually fruit and nuts and possibly a book; certainly nothing excessive, but enough to satisfy young boys back then. Mrs. Lincoln, who appreciated the formalities of a prescribed religious service, insisted the family, including her husband, attend a local church. While Lincoln was a very spiritual man, who studied the Bible throughout his life, he never joined any church or espoused a specific religious creed. He once said; “If any church will inscribe over its altar, as the sole qualification for membership, the Savior’s condensed statement, ‘Thou shalt love the lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself ’– that church will I join.” However, Lincoln enjoyed Christmas activities with his family and he relished sharing time with friends. He was a popular lawyer and politician, and he and Mary participated in various social functions during the Christmas period in their home and at the homes of friends and political acquaintances. We do not know if Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln exchanged gifts, but, all in all, Christmas at the Lincoln’s Springfield home was quite normal for that period, and in that place.
During the Christmas holiday in 1860, the family was still living at their Springfield home. Lincoln had won the national election to become the sixteenth President of the United States, but would not be inaugurated until the following March. Civil War was being discussed and South Carolina had already declared secession from the Union, with several other southern states expected to follow; however, there was still hope that outright war could somehow be avoided. Mrs. Lincoln held a Christmas Eve reception and many of their friends and political acquaintances stopped by the home, including one of Lincoln’s oldest friends and confidants, Congressman Edward Baker, who Lincoln had asked to introduce him at the coming Inauguration.
Abraham Lincoln did become the President of the United States in March 1861, and about one month later, the Civil War, which he dreaded so much, began; and his Christmases would never again be the same.
December 25, 1861, was the Lincoln family’s first Christmas in the White House. Since that last Christmas in Illinois, war had indeed struck the country and his close friend, Edward Baker, the former Congressman from back home, was now dead, just one of the many casualties of the Civil War. Therefore, it was a solemn White House, even with two young boys, Willy and Tad, who would run through the halls, and engage in other rambunctiousness; and who probably longed for a happier day. Social activities were almost non-existent since Mrs. Lincoln did not have many friends in Washington, as both she and her husband were considered outsiders by the long-entrenched Senators, Representatives, Judges and career bureaucrats who comprised the Washington elite. (Some things never change).
A White House employee later wrote; “We did not have many doings in those days, there were too many grave things going on.”
December 25, 1862, was the second Christmas the Lincoln family spent in the White House, but this year may have been the saddest of all. Young Willy had died and Mrs. Lincoln could not seem to recover. Further, the war had become a stagnated mess of death and destruction, with some Union victories, but with a devastating defeat at Fredericksburg just before Christmas. Lincoln had announced the Emancipation Proclamation to be effective January first, and the public was split on the unilateral move the President had made. If there had been a presidential poll back then, his approval rating would have been very low. On Christmas afternoon, after a morning cabinet meeting, the President and Mrs. Lincoln visited wounded soldiers at several Washington hospitals.
December 25, 1863, was their third Christmas in the White House. Mrs. Lincoln was again receiving visitors and Tad had found some new friends, however, the President was still subdued. Although the war news was better, with several major victories for the Union armies, casualties continued to mount and the President still worked through the day.
December 25, 1864, was their fourth Christmas in the Presidential Mansion and the mood was different. President Lincoln knew that the war would not last much longer, that the Union would be preserved, and slavery would soon be outlawed. (The Senate had passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and he was prepared to press the House of Representatives on the issue.) Also, he had just been re-elected to a second four-year term by a wide margin of both voters and the Electoral College. He even received a welcome telegram from General William Tecumseh Sherman, announcing that Savanah, Georgia was now in Union hands, it read “Mr. President, I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah.” Tad, the President’s young son, who still lived in the White house, invited a group of newsboys who sold papers around the area to follow him home for dinner; without telling his parents. He knew his father would not mind, but he must have been at least a little concerned about his mother’s reaction; as she could be difficult at times. Over the holidays, President and Mrs. Lincoln held several receptions for Union military leaders, politicians, and foreign emissaries. This was probably the closest to a “normal” Christmas in the Lincoln White House.
Unfortunately, it would be the last. The President was assassinated less than four months later.
Abraham Lincoln had enjoyed traditional Christmas customs back home in Springfield with family and friends; but, for four years, in the White House, he could not. Instead, he put his country, and his responsibilities as President, first.
For that, he deserves our admiration and gratitude, not criticism.
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