These days, a spin by the White House at Christmastime to see the national and state trees -- yes, even D.C. has one -- is a must for any Washingtonian. In fact, I was there just last night with my sons.
But back in the days of the nation’s most revered president, things were a bit different. For Abraham Lincoln, December 25 was just another work day -- and his beleaguered staff members were expected to show up as well.
While Lincoln is beloved by many, about all he has in common with Santa Claus was a beard. (Don’t try sitting on the 16th president’s lap at the Lincoln Memorial.)
Though Lincoln had a wry and understated sense of humor, he also suffered from depression and moodiness, and was hardly a jolly old anything.
The modern celebration of Christmas -- with presents and carols and big festive dinners -- was well underway by the 1860s. Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was first published in 1823, and Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” came 20 years later. But as the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., writes on its blog this week, Lincoln was more in line with Ebenezer Scrooge than St. Nick.
“Subscribing to earlier Protestant traditions of visiting friends at New Year’s, the Lincolns apparently never embraced the emerging Victorian symbols of celebration,” the museum blog says. Christmas Days throughout Lincoln’s four years in office were “spent on letter-writing and, throughout the presidency, dealing with affairs of state.” And this wasn’t just due to the burdens of the presidency; Lincoln “voted against adjourning for Christmas” while serving in the Illinois state legislature.
Lincoln’s right-hand man, secretary John Nicolay, played the part of Bob Cratchit. On the first Christmas Day of the Lincoln presidency, he wrote to his fiancée that he and colleague John Hay were “moping the day away here in our offices like a couple of great owls in their holes, and expect in an hour or two to go down to Willards and get our ‘daily bread’ just as we do on each of the other three hundred and sixty four days of the year.”
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Our current president is also from Illinois, and is also stuck in the White House on business as Christmas approaches. But Barack Obama won’t be following Lincoln’s grinchy lead -- before the 25th, he’ll jet off to Hawaii.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC