A White (House) Christmas

December 12th, 2012

Over at the Washington, Jefferson, and Madison Institute blog, J. David Gowdy points out a great resource for students interested in learning about Christmas at the White House: WhiteHouseChristmasCards.com. The website has collected accounts of the Christmas celebrations held by each president—from George Washington to Barack Obama—and provides examples of Christmas cards and other Christmas messages offered by each president and his family. 

Here’s an excerpt that looks at how President Abraham Lincoln observed Christmas during the Civil War:

Around the period when Abraham Lincoln was President, […] December 25 was considered a normal work day. Years before his presidency, when Lincoln was a legislator in Illinois in 1834, there was a special vote taken to decide whether elected officials should take off on Christmas Day. Lincoln voted in favor of keeping the day a workday because he felt he would be wasting taxpayers’ money if he took the day off. It was not until 1870, when then President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the bill that made Christmas Day a national holiday, that the day was actually considered anything special. […]

It was during the Civil War that Harper’s Weekly illustrator/cartoonist Thomas Nast became a contributor to the Union’s war effort. Nast, who became known for his Christmas drawings and was generally credited with depicting Santa Claus as we know him today, had initially worked for Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election creating campaign posters. Nast’s ability to stunningly depict Civil War battles and scenes prompted Lincoln to remark that Nast was “our best recruiting sergeant. His emblematic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism.”

Throughout the rest of 1861, the new president involved himself with the running of the war, forming an army, experiencing the disappointment of that army’s loss at the Battle of Bull Run in July, and the naming of George B. McClellan as the General-in-Chief of all Union forces in November.

Although Christmas morning of 1861 was spent in an important cabinet meeting, the President and Mrs. Lincoln had time to have dinner guests to the White House that evening. It was the only Christmas that included the entire Lincoln family. White House Christmases after this first one were relatively sad occasions due to the death of their son, Willie, in February of the following year.

With all that was going on, the President Lincoln and his wife both made a point of visiting hospitals in the area to help care for the wounded. To combat scurvy, the Lincolns donated their own money toward the purchase of oranges and lemons for the troops. It is unknown whether White House Christmas cards accompanied these gifts from the President and First Lady. On New Year’s Day, as part of the holiday tradition, the Lincolns hosted and attended open houses. […]

During the period from September to mid-November [of 1864], [General William Tecumseh] Sherman’s army went about the task of bringing the city of Atlanta to its knees, destroying the city’s railroads and warehouses. His army of 62,000 then began its famous “March to the Sea,” culminating in the capture of Savannah, Georgia on December 21.

In a telegraphed letter to President Lincoln, General Sherman wrote: “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah…” In a heartfelt reply, Lincoln wrote: “Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift – the capture of Savannah…Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army – officers and men.”

One of Thomas Nast’s most famous prints was one called The Union Christmas, which was printed on December 31, 1864 and depicts President Lincoln standing at a door, with him offering the cold and frostbitten Southern soldiers an invitation to rejoin the Union. Another Nast creation from earlier that same month showed the Confederacy’s President Jefferson Davis and his problematic predicament. The illustration, entitled Lincoln’s Christmas Box to Jeff Davis, showed the choices the South’s leader by then had: “More war or peace and union?”

Read more about Lincoln’s White House Christmases here, and explore the Christmas traditions of other presidents here

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