As Christmas stockings begin crowding Halloween candy on store shelves, it is hard to believe that the monolith that is the Christmas Tradition has not always been thus, forever and immutable. But Christmas in America is only a bit over 150 years old. Christmas did not exist for the Lincoln family in Indiana as we know it today. Still, just as Indiana shaped the boy who would become our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln helped shape our American Christmas.
Our view of a frontier winter holiday may be shaped in large part by the Ingall’s family experience as told in “The Little House on the Prairie,” but they celebrated their holidays in the 1870s, a generation after Abraham grew up in Indiana. In contrast, the Lincoln’s first “Christmas” in Indiana would have followed just days after they arrived from Kentucky to take up residence in a three-sided, “half-faced camp” in 1816. It was the “year without summer,” and they had lost much of what they owned while crossing the Ohio River. There were no stockings for the Lincolns. There wasn’t even a chimney. Even if they had known a Christmas Tradition, they passed that winter season in unbelievably poor conditions and would have been hard pressed to produce even one fruit cake.
The modern view of Christmas and its most well known proponent, Santa Claus, crept slowly into American ideals following the crowning of Queen Victoria and her German-born husband in 1837. Although Clement Moore penned “The Night Before Christmas” in 1827 and Charles Dickens had introduced his chain-dragging Christmas spirits by 1843, it was President Lincoln’s campaign artist Thomas Nast that fully introduced us to fat, jolly Santa in his 1863 Harper’s Weekly cartoon where Santa is seen giving gifts to Union soldiers–done at Lincoln’s behest.
Abraham Lincoln did not celebrate Christmas in Indiana, just as he did not write the Gettysburg address here. But he brought the experience of growing up poor on the frontier to his life in Washington D.C. He may not have hung stockings here, but he did hang them in the White House. It is here where he grew up, and here where the seeds of his contributions to America–both its history and its Christmas Tradition–were planted.
Happy Holidays from Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial!
Guest Blog Post from Kendell Thompson, Superintendent of Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial