Spreading Holiday Cheer—Lincoln Style

By Rebecca DownesWhat is your favorite part of the holiday season? Is it your brightly decorated Christmas tree or the glowing candles of your menorah? Perhaps it is the thrill of ripping open your holiday gifts and feasting on decorated gingerbread men. For me, the best part of the holiday season are the traditions that have been passed down through my family from year to year, and getting to spend quality time with the people I love.

Now, imagine not being able to have any of those things: No tree or presents. No holiday feast. No time with your loved ones.

It seems pretty disheartening to think of the holidays in those terms. Sadly, that is exactly how thousands of soldiers celebrated Christmas during the Civil War. President Lincoln, his wife Mary and their young son Tad were confronted with the gloominess and low morale of soldiers when they visited them in Washington hospitals. Consider how difficult it must have been for these men to spend their holiday away from home in an overcrowded hospital filled with the sick, wounded and dying.

civil war soldiers

Engineers of the 8th N.Y. State Militia, 1861. No. Ill-B-499, Courtesy of the National Archives.

Tad Lincoln may have been just a child, but the sweet little boy’s heart went out to the soldiers that he saw. After visiting wounded soldiers, Tad requested that his father send Christmas gifts to the men. Items such as clothing and reading materials were delivered to soldiers under the signature, “Tad Lincoln”. President Lincoln and his wife also donated money and sent items to soldiers in need[i].

Take a page from Tad Lincoln’s book this holiday season. Instead of spending money on expensive things that you do not really need, consider others who are less fortunate. It doesn’t take much—skip a week’s worth of trips to Starbucks and use the money to buy a toy for children in need. Donate canned goods to your local food bank. Even those of us on a budget can spare our pocket change for Salvation Army collection buckets.  Helping others is the quickest way to get in the Christmas spirit.

After all, isn’t giving more rewarding than receiving?  The Lincolns’ sure thought so.

Ms. Downes is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

[i] Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum: Christmas at the White House, “Abraham and Mary Lincoln” http://www.hoover.archives.gov/exhibits/WHChristmas/lincoln/index.html

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