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December 19, 2011

Have A Presidential Christmas

three women Protestors with sign saying - Mr President let's have a old-fashioned christmas.

Protestors ask President Harding to give amnesty to Political Prisoners, 1922.

This Christmas, you may be hearing rumors that Santa Claus was invented to sell Coca Cola.  Well, Christmas is much older the Republican Party.  It’s even older than the Pope.

The Founding Fathers inherited the tradition from the European ancestors, but in 1776 Washington’s army had little to celebrate.

King George III hired Hessian Mercenaries to burn towns, loot and violate homes, and a bunch of these over-paid contract soldiers were having the feast of their lives while.

Meanwhile, George Washinton, “the father of our country”, and his impoverished Patriot army crossed an icy river.  Provisions were low: some recruits didn’t even have boots to keep their feet warm. 

After allowing King George III’s military contractors to get their drinks in, the Patriots crashed the party.

The hung over Hessians were caught by surprise and captured on Boxing Day.  The gift to the world’s youngest country may have come a bit late, but it was worth waiting for.

(Family legend says that some of those Hessians later changed sides and became American citizens.  They adapted the American ideals of freedom and tolerance, but they never forgot their Christmas trees or lost their taste for egg nog.)

Other military Christmases followed a similar tradition. In 1804, Hezekiah Loomis wrote how “not much work was done” on board his battleship in the Mediterranean “it being Christmas Day.” The men had a double portion of “grog”. These sailors were away from their families, some writing letters home, others perhaps hoping for action to free their comrades in arms who were prisoners in the dungeons of North Africa.

The Sage of Monticello’s Christmas wisdom

While not all those early 19th century letters and journals speak of Yuletide celebrations, the early occupants of the White House knew how to bring seasons cheer.

President Jefferson was a widower, and his children were all grown up.  However, that eternal hostesses, Dolly Madison, was on hand to help entertain his grandchildren. Jefferson, known as a miser in most things, spoilt the little ones on this holiday with a mountain of presents. And after a warm Christmas dinner, they had some of Dolly Madison’s famous mince pies.

Dolly continued to be host for another President.  She was known as a gracious hostess, a true “first lady” to ambassadors from lands as far away as France and Portugal and as close at the Indian tribes on the borders. Christmas was a time when Dolly Madison could escape politics and enjoy some time with the family, even if on occasion one or two family members may have been absent from the celebrations.

Whether Washington took up the Hessians on the idea of the Christmas tree is debatable. We know that he didn’t have Christmas in the white house because it wasn’t ready until he passed away. We are also told that President Washington never had any children of his own.

Yet, the Father of our country adopted his wife’s grandchildren. They are said to have been visited by Father Christmas in the Washington home.

The Adams, Jacksons and other Presidents are said to have gifts to relatives and step children alike.

President Van Buren probably received the most expensive Christmas gift.  The Bisbee review told us that in 1839, an Imam sent President Van Buren “two arabian horses, a bottle of Attar of Roses, five demijohns of rosewater, a package of Cashmere shawls, a bale of Persian Rugs, a box of pearls” and other gifts, most of them for the President.  However, the Imam did remember a Commodore in the American Navy and gave him a sword.  (No Partridges or pear trees were mentioned.)

(Van Buren shared his presents.  The horses were sold – every little bit to balance the budget – and the other goods were added “to the collection in the patent office.”)

There was a time when Father Christmas’s sleigh was said to have skipped the White House entirely. From the presidencies of James Polk, down to James Buchanan there were no children or grandchildren coming to visit.  And some authors have assumed no children means no Santa and no tree.

President Buchanan, as some of us know, was a bachelor. He is disliked by some historians for allowing the break up of the Union, and by others for starting the Mormon War.  Polk, the first President to not celebrate Christmas, is also disliked by historians for taking large chunks of Mexico and expanding slavery.

Perhaps Santa snuck into the oval office during one of these years to drop in a lump of coal.

Or, maybe history has treated these Presidents unfairly.

President Buchanan did give one gift that kept on giving.  He started a trust fund which as late as 1908 gave coal to keep 400 families warm in Lancaster Pennsylvania.

Zachary Tayler was given an 1837 victory at Lake Okeechobee in Florida.  It came before 12 years before he got to celebrate Christmas as president, but it was a victory no less.

(We’ll let the experts discuss these gifts in their ivory towers.)

Christmas returns

In 1861 the Christmas tradition came back, in a new and bigger way. Abraham Lincoln, we all hear, grew up in a log cabin with parents who couldn’t even spell “Christmas Tree,” let alone “Santa Claus.”  Well, once “Honest Abe” got into the White House he spoilt his children rotten, especially little Tad.

Tad Lincoln wanted a theater for Christmas.  Not a little toy playmobile or Lego Theatre, but a Big stage were full grown actors could jump around on and off of.

Now, you and I might think that a pony was a bit heavy to fit in Santa’s sleigh, and a theater, well, you can’t expect the elves to do all that for just one little boy, no matter how good he had been.  But father Abraham saw only one problem with his son’s request.  His son asked too late, the theater could not be built in time!

Despite the absurdity of this request, work was put on to adapt something into a stage as quickly as possible.  Shortly after Christmas, Tad Lincoln got his wish, and had a stage right there by the White House.

(Before anyone points out the irony in a stage being given to a Lincoln, we should note that poor little Tad didn’t live past the age of 18.  An even stranger irony is that after his death, Tad’s less indulgent mother was put into an insane asylum, because, among other things, she bought “things that she didn’t need.”)

Teddy Bear for President

When Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was President “The president was the biggest boy of all.” Teddy dressed up as Santa Claus and gave presents to the grandchildren.  The entire day was devoted to his family.  It was as if Teddy had never been President and was just a big jolly fellow with a big jolly appetite.

The origin of the first White House Christmas tree has been debated, but one thing that’s beyond debate is that Teddy Roosevelt, a nature loving tree hugger, didn’t want one in the White House.   We know that he knew about that tree tradition, and his first White House Christmas was traditional in every way but one.  No tree.

Tradition has a way of winning.  According to the 1909 Salt Lake Tribune, Gifford Pinchot, a man who worked in conservation for the Government, was in a “conspiracy” with Santa Claus and got a tree in there the Roosevelts’ second year, 1902.

Teddy gave other people reasons to celebrate too.

Miss Elizabeth Phillips saw that every year, thousands of letters were addressed to Santa Claus. With Teddy Roosevelt’s approval, Miss Phillips decided to play Santa.

So far as she could, Elizabeth Phillips. had all the envelops opened and tried to grant the requests written in them. Within a year, she was known as “Santa Claus.” When she died, the poor children of America missed her dearly.

But the example of Elizabeth Phillips lasted. As late as 1911, any benevolent person who wanted to give to the poor children of America, could gain permission from the United States Post Office to sort through the “dead letters” to Santa and grant as many Christmas wishes as he or she could afford.

Sadly, we don’t live in that kind of world any more.  No one would want just any stranger having our address today, even if it could be a benevolent Santa.  Instead, each would-be Santa Claus can do his or her best to guess how we can help our neighbours and what we can do to make their children happy.

It seems that President Taft may have had a difficult time getting away from work. “Mr Taft” said the Warren Sheef “devoted the day to his family, with little or no business being transacted.” Well, what was it Mr. Taft? No business transacted? Or did you sneak away when the little ones were playing with their gifts and make a quick call to the senator on this or that bill. (Maybe Taft was just calling to say “Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year, which is when you better get that report done or else…”)

Not all Presidents spend Christmas at home.  In 1913, Woodrow Wilson spent a quiet Christmas in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1914 Wilson gave as much as he could to spread the Christmas spirit, including pardoning a convict so the man could see his dying son.  And in 1918, just after World War I, President Wilson ate his Christmas dinner with the troops in Europe.

The past three Presidents have had plenty to celebrate, with beautiful daughters, understanding wives, and cute little dogs running around to bring them slippers.

We all know that you don’t need to be President to have the Christmas spirit, and some people who live in less than mansions can also show us the Christmas spirit.

One hundred years ago, Senator Shelby M. Cullom (from Illinois) said:

“Of course I believe in Santa Claus, and I am old enough to be him myself. Santa is much better to the young folks now than he was in my day. We were glad to get a few pieces of candy for Christmas or some other simple gift. I believe in Santa Claus so strongly that I am going to entertain my granddaughter and her two children at Christmas. I am going to have a Christmas tree and let Santa trim it for the little girls, and I expect they will be delighted with the presents he brings them, as they have been good girls.”

This message appeared in newspapers throughout America. Jane Addams, who ran the famous Hull House, Carter H. Harrison, Mayor of Chicago, Margaret Illington, actress, Champ Clark, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Father J.J. O’Callaghan, Catholic Priest, and Mrs. Raymon Robins, the President of the National Women’s Trade Union League, also believed in Santa.

May your Christmas be Presidential!


The following were useful in compiling this article:

On Lincoln’s childhood:

Abraham Lincoln (Clarendon Biographies)

On Lincoln’s Widow, Mary Todd:

New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905

Hezekia Loomis:

Naval Documents related to the Wars with the Barbary powers (6 volumes, the specific Christmas mentioned above is in volume 5).

(For a readable background on the Barbary Wars:)

Victory in Tripoli: How America’s War with the Barbary Pirates Established the U.S. Navy and Shaped a Nation

Other stories were taken from family traditions, from lectures, and from from various old newspapers including:

Perrysburg journal, (Ohio) December 18, 1914;
The Winchester news, (Kentucky) December 15, 1908;
The National Tribune, (DC) February 28, 1884;
The Times Dispatch, (Richmond, Virginia) December 24, 1911

On the Trust Fund started by Buchanan:

The Citizen, (Pennsylvania) December 30, 1908

Some interesting details on Taft and Roosevelt:

Perrysburg journal, (Ohio) December 05, 1913;
El Paso herald, (Texas) January 28, 1911;
The Princeton union, (Minnesota) December 21, 1911