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President Lincoln’s Last Christmas

The character of American Christmas changed as a result of the Civil War

President Lincoln depicted on a Christmas card from the 1920s. Christmas wasn't as important of a holiday in Lincoln's time, but his personal Christmas story is worth telling. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
smithsonian.com

President Lincoln's final Christmas was a historic moment. The telegram he received from General William Tecumseh Sherman signaled that the end of the Civil War was near. But as Lincoln's personal Christmas story reveals, those conflict-filled years also helped shape a uniquely American Christmas.

Sherman’s telegram to the president, who had been elected to a second term only a month before, read “I beg to present you, as a Christmas gift, the city of Savannah, with 150 heavy guns and plenty of ammunition, and also about 25,000 bales of cotton.”

“Washington celebrated with a 300-gun salute,” writes the Wisconsin State Journal. This victory signaled that the end of the long, bloody war that shaped Lincoln’s presidency and the country was likely near. Lincoln wrote back: “Many, many thanks for your Christmas gift–the capture of Savannah. Please make my grateful acknowledgements to your whole army–officers and men.”

Although it separated many from their families, permanently or temporarily, the Civil War also helped to shaped Americans’ experience of Christmas, which wasn’t a big holiday before the 1850s. “Like many other such ‘inventions of tradition,’ the creation of an American Christmas was a response to social and personal needs that arose at a particular point in history, in this case a time of sectional conflict and civil war,” writes Penne Restad for History Today.

By the time of the war, Christmas had gone from being a peripheral holiday celebrated differently all across the country, if it was celebrated at all, to having a uniquely American flavor.

“The Civil War intensified Christmas’s appeal,” Restad writes. “Its celebration of family matched the yearnings of soldiers and those they left behind. Its message of peace and goodwill spoke to the most immediate prayers of all Americans.

This was true in the White House, too. “Lincoln never really sent out a Christmas message for the simple reason that Christmas did not become a national holiday until 1870, five years after his death,” writes Max Benavidez for Huffington Post. “Until then Christmas was a normal workday, although people did often have special Christmas dinners with turkey, fruitcake and other treats.”

During the war, Lincoln made Christmas-related efforts–such as having cartoonist Thomas Nast draw an influential illustration of Santa Claus handing out Christmas gifts to Union troops, Benavidez writes. But Christmas itself wasn't the big production it would become: In fact, the White House didn't even have a Christmas tree until 1889. But during the last Christmas of the war–and the last Christmas of Lincoln's life–we do know something about how he kept the holiday.

On December 25, the Lincolns hosted a Christmas reception for the cabinet, writes the White House Historical Society. They also had some unexpected guests for that evening’s Christmas dinner, the historical society writes. Tad Lincoln, the president’s rambunctious young son who had already helped inspire the tradition of a Presidential turkey pardon, invited several newsboys–child newspaper sellers who worked outdoors in the chilly Washington winter–to the Christmas dinner. “Although the unexpected guests were a surprise to the White House cook, the president welcomed them and allowed them to stay for dinner,” writes the historical association. The meal must have been a memorable one, for the newsboys at least.

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