How Lincoln Redefined Thanksgiving and Christmas

Before Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, Christmas and Thanksgiving reflected an intense regional divide. Thanksgiving was historically associated with the so-called Puritan North of America and Christmas with the South of the Horsemen. Lincoln, who was rooted in early Puritan New England on his father’s side and the Cavalier Virginia plantation class on his mother’s side, combined a deep moral commitment to freedom with a strong sense of honor. He responded to the Civil War crisis by redefining Thanksgiving and Christmas as days celebrated not on the basis of sectoral identities, but rather in the inclusive spirit of American democracy, which he called “the last best.” hope of the earth ”.

The Agriculture and Harvest Festival, eventually known as Thanksgiving, has its roots in a celebration hosted by Puritan Pilgrims to the Plymouth Colony in the fall of 1621, nearly a year after the landing of the Mayflower. Thanksgiving has been a northern state affair for over two centuries, celebrated each year at different times from mid to late fall. In the early 1840s Sarah Josepha Hale, editor-in-chief of the popular magazine The Book of the Lady of Godey, began using his columns to lobby for the nationalization of Thanksgiving and its celebration on the last Thursday in November. Her writing became more and more passionate as she witnessed the widening of the divide around slavery. When the division led to Civil War, Hale wrote a letter to President Lincoln, stressing the urgency of making Thanksgiving “a national, fixed union festival” that would offer healing to a torn nation. She told him that by announcing “this Thanksgiving union,” the president could ensure that “the permanence and unity of our Great American Festival of Thanksgiving would be forever assured.”

Like Hale, Lincoln believed that the holidays had the power to unite people – in his words, “they bring us together and thus make us better known and better friends than we would otherwise be … They make it more enjoyable and stronger, and more lasting, the bond of social and political union between us.

During the Civil War, proclamation of religious holidays was one of Lincoln’s main cultural means of fostering the spirit of “unionism” that the poet Walt Whitman identified as “his character’s tough guy.” To this end, Lincoln issued nine religious proclamations, more than any other American president.

He saw Thanksgiving in particular as a powerful impetus to restore national unity on the basis of human justice. On October 3, 1863, shortly after receiving Hale’s letter, Lincoln declared that the last Thursday in November would be the day God would be thanked “as with one heart and with one voice by all the American people.” , including “my fellow citizens on all sides. of the United States, as well as those who are at sea and those who sojourn in foreign lands. Lincoln asked for “the almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and restore it as soon as possible with divine purposes for the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and union.”

The following year, continuing his efforts to forge national unity under northern terms, Lincoln again set the last Thursday in November as the Thanksgiving date, prompting The New York Times to notice: “The custom of the pilgrims of New England, initially limited to a few states, finally took, in 1864, the scope and the statute of a great national holiday, which, it is hoped, will be permanent. and universally observed. “Federally authorized Thanksgiving on the last Thursday in November has become a tradition, and Franklin D. Roosevelt made it an official American holiday in 1941.

By his Thanksgiving proclamations, Lincoln was nationalizing a holiday that by its nature was associated with Puritan New England, the primary source of abolitionism. The New York Tribune noted that “the general adoption of Thanksgiving Day is striking evidence of New England influence.” Likewise, in an article on “A National Thanksgiving,” a Massachusetts newspaper reported: “So the old Puritan festival, so long confined to the narrow New England circuit, and ridiculed by the so-called Southern Riders like a relic of early vanity and fanaticism, in this eventful and memorable year and for the first time in our history, takes on a national character. Lincoln’s Thanksgiving proclamations did for Puritan-based notions of freedom what the Gettysburg speech did for the doctrine of human equality in the Declaration of Independence, merging progressive American ideals with the very definition of the nation.

But while Lincoln brought a celebration largely from north to south, he also took a celebration largely from south to north.

Christmas had never taken root in the North. In fact, it had been frequently banned by the Puritans of early New England, who viewed it as a holdover from the paganism adopted by the Catholic and Anglican churches. The Puritans, who fled to the New World in rebellion against these churches, rejected holy days and religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter, pointing out that they were not mentioned in the Bible. Orthodox Puritans claimed that the date of Christ’s birth was unknown and that 4th-century Christians took the December 25 sacrilege of a pagan holiday, the Saturnalia, which marked the winter solstice. Rejecting this “pagan” holiday, the Puritan leaders of New England did what they could to suppress the Christmas celebrations. The spiritual leader of the Pilgrims, Reverend John Robinson, said the faithful cannot be true Christians as long as they continue to “celebrate Easter and Christmas in the dark, for which there is no guarantee in the Scriptures “. Increase Mather wrote in his diary that “men dishonor Christ more during the 12 days of Christmas than during the next 12 months.” As nineteenth-century historian George Curtis wrote, “the Puritans… disapproved of Santa Claus as the Antichrist” and viewed Christmas as a relic of the “paper mill”.

The Cavaliers, settlers from the south loyal to the Stuart kings, found Christmas both a religious holiday and a means of legitimizing and preserving the institution of slavery. Southern slavers believed they were carrying on the old Anglican tradition of a festive Christmas by giving alcohol to the people they had enslaved and encouraging savage celebrations. But Frederick Douglass hated the drunken Christmas revelry, seeing them as a sop invented by the masters to distract from oppression.

During Lincoln’s presidency, however, Christmas took on new meaning. The famous American-German illustrator Thomas Nast is primarily responsible for its transformation. . Nast, a Lincoln devotee, put his Santa Claus in politically charged scenarios. One of his earliest distinctive illustrations, on the cover of Harper magazine in January 1863, the month Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, showed Santa Claus delivering gifts to Union soldiers at a military camp. Nast’s Santa literally embodies the North: he is dressed in stars and stripes, surrounded by jubilant Union soldiers, and holds in his hand a puppet representing Jefferson Davis hanging by the neck – a reminder of the line improvised in “The John Brown Song,” “We’re going to hang Jeff Davis from a sour apple tree.”

Lincoln recognized the political significance of such illustrations. “Thomas Nast was our best recruiting sergeant,” he said. “His iconic cartoons have never failed to arouse enthusiasm and patriotism, and always seemed to arrive when such items were scarce. General Ulysses S. Grant, when asked who was “the most important figure in civilian life” during the war years, replied: “I think, Thomas Nast.

During the second half of the Civil War, the North became more associated with Christmas. An 1863 political cartoon, “Santa Claus Visits Uncle Sam!” The following year, the looming victory of the North over the South was represented by a photo of costumed “Santa Lincoln” thumbing his nose at a lying and dying Davis.

December 1864 brought a fusion of the Christmas spirit and northern goals. William Tecumseh Sherman intentionally programmed his note to Lincoln about his capture of Savannah, Georgia, to arrive by telegraph before Christmas. Indeed, Lincoln received the telegram from Sherman – “Please present you the city of Savannah as a Christmas present” – on December 25th. Lincoln immediately responded, “Many, many, thank you for your Christmas present – the capture of Savannah.” Newspapers ran exuberant headlines such as “THE SAVANNA NTRE. Christmas gift to the nation. The popular magazine Frank Leslie’s weekly predicted that hereinafter “on December 25 [will] recalls the splendid ‘Christmas gift ‘from General Sherman to’ Old Abe ‘for many generations to come. The Thirteenth Amendment was about to get through Congress with difficulty, and Sherman’s historic Christmas present provided a welcome boost to the abolition of slavery.

The American celebration of Christmas, once endemic to the slave South, was now associated with Lincoln and the North. No one saw this more clearly than Nast, whose December 1864 lithograph “The Union Christmas Dinner” showed the great and worthy Lincoln standing at the open door of a large dining room (the nation controlled by the north) and inviting the defeated southerners to a holiday feast. at a long table. In the photo, northerners occupy the chairs on one side of the table; the opposite side of the table is empty, soon filled with southerners who will take chairs labeled with abbreviations of the names of their respective states. Nast made it clear that the North dominated the holidays. Not only are Lincoln and the seated Northerners hosting ‘Union Christmas’, the lower left corner of the engraving features an image of Confederate generals surrendering to those in the Union, while the upper right features a picture of the prodigal son returning to his father.

By the end of the Civil War, Thanksgiving and Christmas crossed sectoral and ethnic divisions. They were joined by a third holiday, Easter, also downplayed in Puritan New England, which took on deeper meaning when Lincoln was assassinated on Good Friday of 1865. In 1868, three years after the war, The Book of the Lady of Godey, who had once made a solitary appeal for national holidays, could happily count as an American holiday “on Thanksgiving Day, with her families from across the country gathered for friendly sex; Christmas, with its delicious associations and sacred memories; and Easter, the best and the brightest of all, when peace and goodwill are renewed for men.

The North’s decisive victory in the Civil War helped transform these religious holidays into what Lincoln said civic celebrations should be: opportunities to strengthen “the bond of social and political union between us.”

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