Every Christmas, parades occur in small towns, like where I grew up in Indiana. Inevitably the sheriff or the mayor would always ride in a car right behind Santa Claus and his sleigh. Figuring the first President to employ Santa Clause to win over public sentiment could be challenging. Here are a few hints about Christmas’s entry into the U.S.:
- 1822 “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” by Clement Moore
- 1843 “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens
- 1848 Britain’s Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree appears in the U.S.
Via telegraph and expanded newspaper circulation.
- 1849 “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” by Edmund Sears,
1850 Melody to Sears’ poem by Richard Storrs Willis
- 1850s Christmas trees and Poinsettias first went up on Christmas Eve.
Here is the biggest hint: The Civil War tore the nation apart in the 1860s. President Abe Lincoln felt the weight of leading a nation torn North from South, 1861-1865. Yet, he could not ignore Christmas for his family, while many Americans prepared for a traditional holiday.
The Lincoln’s Christmas 1863-64
He purchased a toy for his son, Tad, at D.C.’s Stuntz Toy Store at 1207 New York Avenue (see picture above) on December 24, 1863. Then their eldest son, Robert, attended Harvard Law School. Two other sons, Eddie (1848-1851), died of typhoid, and Willie (1850-1862) died of tuberculosis while the family lived in the White House.
The Lincolns’ followed the low-key family traditions of the time. In December 1860, after the election but before the Lincoln’s moved to Washington, Abe visited a shop in Springfield to purchase gifts to fit into Christmas stockings. His notes record on Christmas Eve that Lincoln bought three linen handkerchiefs, three silk gentleman’s silk scarfs, and four child’s silk handkerchiefs. He might have stopped off at another store to purchase popcorn balls for his sons or a fancy perfume or soap for Mary. These were customary gifts at Christmas in1860.
Lincoln’s Strategic Move
Lincoln understood the reach of publications like Harper’s Weekly to carry his message to Americans on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. Thomas Nast, Harper’s artist, already worked with Lincoln to design campaign posters for the 1860 campaign. For the 1864 Christmas season, Lincoln and Nast devised messages to reach both sides in the Civil War. Tad Lincoln accompanied his parents to D.C. hospitals to visit Union soldiers. After the visits, Tad wanted to give books and clothing to the soldiers. His father made it happen, then worked with Nast to craft an editorial cartoon picturing Father Christmas/Santa drawn from the side as he gave Union troops books and clothing with tags that read “From Tad Lincoln.” Historians believe this to be the first time Santa Claus’s image appeared in print.
The following year, Lincoln sought to move Confederate troops closer to the Union. First, he had Nast draw Lincoln standing in a doorway, inviting cold and frost-bitten Rebels to rejoin the Union, titled “Union Christmas 1864.” Finally, an editorial cartoon named “Christmas Box” depicted Lincoln offering Confederate President Jefferson Davis a present with the question: “More war or peace and Union?”
Lincoln and Religion
Earlier in Lincoln’s career, questions arose about whether he believed in God because when he ran for the Illinois legislature, Lincoln said he did not belong to a particular church. In 1846, Lincoln said he had never denied the truth of the Scriptures and could not support for office a man￼ “I knew to be an open enemy of religion.” After his election, Lincoln voted against making Christmas a holiday for state workers. He said he looked at it from the cost to the state budget to offer another holiday to state workers. Lincoln worked Christmas like any other day during the Civil War. He attended New York Avenue Presbyterian Church regularly when living in the White House. Grant would be President in 1870 when Congress approved Christmas as a national holiday.
President Lincoln depended on the Bible as the only book available to read as a youngster and came to depend on the wisdom he found there, particularly during the Civil War. This Lincoln quote from the war years is one indication of his sentiment. Likewise, we could apply the ending sentiment to the crisis we face today:
“I fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the Nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace consistent with Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and Union.”