Thomas Schwartz: Lincoln the Scrooge?

Roundup: Talking About History

[Thomas Schwartz is Illinois State Historian.]

The memorable holiday character of Ebenezer Scrooge from Charles Dickens’s 1843 classic A Christmas Carol brought into popular usage the phrase “Bah! Humbug!” Scrooge went beyond ignoring the holiday. He believed it to be a conspiracy of slackers to get a day off from work. “A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December,” exclaimed Scrooge. Ultimately, Scrooge’s problem was his inability to embrace the spirit of the season that also included reconnecting with friends, family, and the less fortunate. The Scrooge model is supported by a recent study suggesting that the higher one’s socioeconomic status, the lower the “empathic accuracy.” In other words, one becomes less attuned to the needs of others. In the triumphal ending, Scrooge’s change of heart also allows for the future of individuals such as Tiny Tim to change as well.

There is little evidence that Abraham Lincoln celebrated Christmas in ways that Charles Dickens’s novella helped advance: holiday dinner, a Yule log, the exchange of presents, stockings by the fireplace, and a decorated tree. Subscribing to earlier Protestant traditions of visiting friends at New Year’s, the Lincolns apparently never embraced the emerging Victorian symbols of celebration.

Looking at what is firmly documented for Lincoln’s activities on December 25th, we find most of his time spent on letter-writing and, throughout the presidency, dealing with affairs of state. While serving in the Illinois Legislature in Vandalia, Lincoln voted against adjourning for Christmas. While serving in the United States House of Representatives, Lincoln spent the 1848 holiday straightening out an old legal issue with his friend Joshua Speed, ending the letter, “Nothing of consequence new here, beyond what you see in the papers.”...

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