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. 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 acknowledgments to your whole army — officers and men.”
Although it separated many from their families, permanently or temporarily, the Civil War also helped to shape 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.
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. 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. 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.
|The famed American cartoonist Thomas Nast is credited as having invented the modern depiction of Santa Claus. Nast, who had worked as a magazine illustrator and created campaign posters for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, was hired by Harper’s Weekly in 1862. For the Christmas season, he was assigned to draw the magazine’s cover, and legend has it that Lincoln himself requested a depiction of Santa Claus visiting Union troops. The resulting cover, from Harper’s Weekly dated January 3, 1863, was a hit.|
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.
|The short haircut was perhaps suggested by Lincoln's barber to facilitate the taking of his life mask by Clark Mills. Lincoln knew from experience how long hair could cling to plaster. From an 1865 stereograph card, long attributed to Mathew Brady was actually taken by Lewis Emory Walker, a government photographer, in February of 1865 and published for him by the E. & H. T. Anthony Co., of New York.|
Compiled by Neil Gale, Ph.D.