Holidays with the Garfields

The Holiday Season (Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day) means different things to different people.  Some will devoutly observe the sanctimony of the holidays; others will conduct personal reflections on the changing year.  Often, these will be mixed with cherished opportunities to spend time with family and friends.

Though some traditions and customs may have changed over the years, James A. Garfield also observed the holiday season, celebrating with family and friends and reflecting on his accomplishments throughout the past year.

An avid diarist throughout the majority of his life,  Garfield often wrote details of his thoughts on the holidays each year.  Reviewing these diary entries reveals many things both interesting and a little surprising.

James A. Garfield was a dedicated diarist and left behind many recollections of the holiday season.    (Library of Congress)

James A. Garfield was a dedicated diarist and left behind many recollections of the holiday season. (Library of Congress)

New Year’s Day appears to be of more importance to Garfield than did Christmas and Thanksgiving.  He spent many New Year’s Days evaluating the previous year’s achievements and looking at opportunities for personal improvement.

Wednesday, December 31, 1851 – I have perhaps done as well during the past year as could have been expected, but I can do better next time- let me try.

Monday, December 31, 1877 – The year has been an eventful one in many ways, particularly in the line of my public and private life. I shall be curious to see whether it is the culmination of my strength, for I have reached the top of the ridge according to the ordinary calculations of human life.

On some years he included personal reflections that were quite somber.

Thursday, December 31, 1857 – I feel that I am not so good a man in heart as I once was.  Perhaps the business of living is the business of growing hardened to many things in life…I fear that my heart does not pray as it ought.  Oh my God, may the sins of this closing year be blotted from the great book of thy remembrance, and my soul be fitted for heaven.

Friday, January 1, 1875 – I fear (the past) two years have taken away something from my cheerfulness and buoyancy of spirit.  I shall try to resist the shadows and court the sunshine.

The center of Garfield's life during the holidays was, of course, his wife, Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, and their children.   (Library of Congress)

The center of Garfield’s life during the holidays was, of course, his wife, Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, and their children. (Library of Congress)

However, Garfield was not always melancholy around New Year’s Day.  He also enjoyed the social opportunities of the holiday.  As a young man, he noted New Year’s Eve, 1849, was spent at Chagrin Falls, Ohio.  It should not be too hard to imagine 18-year old James celebrating the holiday as young men are likely to- by laughing with friends and chatting with pretty girls.

Perhaps his oddest holiday season came in 1858, when he spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve in intellectual debate with renowned traveling debater William Denton on the proposition that life on Earth exists not by direct, creative power but by progressive development.  Each gave 20 half-hour speeches in Chagrin Falls between December 27 and 31.  Both men claimed victory in the debate, but the experience won Garfield considerable experience, confidence, and local acclaim.

As for Christmas holidays, Garfield does not record much thought on the day in his diary.  As a young man, he typically spent the day at school or church in the morning, then with family in the evening.

Friday, December 25, 1857 – Classes as usual.  But few are gone away ‘to Christmas’.  Spent the evening at (future father-in-law) Brother (Zebulon) Rudolph’s.  A very pleasant time.  Read The Culprit Fay to the company.

As his family life evolved, Garfield wrote frequently of the joy he found in spending time with his wife and children.

Friday, December 25, 1874 – …at an early hour we listened to the exclamations of delight from the children at the presents which has been distributed during the night…I am glad to notice that Harry and Jimmy have…awakened to the love of reading.

Saturday, December 25, 1875 – Spent the day home with the children, who were delighted with their Christmas Gifts.  Crete (Lucretia) and I joined them in their games and made a very pleasant day of it…I did hope to get away to New York for a part of this vacation, but I enjoy being at home more than ever before.  I am glad this is so, although it probably indicates the advance of old age.

Sunday, December 24, 1876 – Attended church with Mother, Crete, Mollie, Irvin and Miss Mays. In the evening attended to the Christmas things and read from  (Alfred Lord Tennyson’s) In Memoriam.

Monday, December 25, 1876 – I read to Crete and Miss Mays poems from…In Memoriam which relate to Christmas…their beauties grow upon me at each reading.  I have, for many years, sung  “Ring out, Wild Bells” to a rude air…which Crete is good enough to say is excellent music.

The Garfields had a large family consisting of five children and James's mother, Eliza Ballou Garfield.  In 1879, Lucretia's father, Zeb Rudolph, came to live with them as well.  (Library of Congress)

The Garfields had a large family consisting of five children that survived to adulthood and James’s mother, Eliza Ballou Garfield. In 1879, Lucretia’s father, Zeb Rudolph, came to live with them in their Mentor, Ohio home as well. (Library of Congress)

The holidays were not always so serene for Garfield though.  As a prominent attorney and U.S. Congressman, other affairs frequently kept him busy and away from home.  In 1873 Garfield traveled to Boston on Christmas Eve to take and review testimony for a court case over disputed land in the city.  He spent Christmas Day there in preparation for the trial.  A few years later, in 1879, Garfield was in New York for New Year’s Eve, and longing for home.

Thursday, January 1, 1879 – I am homesick as a boy to be with the dear ones (at home) today.

Indeed, Garfield’s favorite way to spend the holidays was with his family and friends.

Thursday, December 31, 1857 – This evening we went to Bro. Rudolph’s with Crete…we read (George D.) Prentice’s Closing Year. How thrilling!!

Wednesday, December 31, 1873 – Sat up with Crete and watched the old year out.

Sunday, December 31, 1876 – After dinner read to the children from Audubon concerning the wild turkey, its character and habits.  In the evening…read Tennyson’s New Year’s and Christmas Poems until near midnight.  The clock struck the new year before we went to sleep.

Thursday, November 29, 1877 – Spend the day at home…read, wrote, played with the children and enjoyed our home Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, December 24, 1879 – spent several hours with Crete and the boys (Harry and Jimmy) getting Christmas things for the children and our friends.

Friday, December 24, 1880 – …the whole family was ready at six-ten (in the morning) to meet the dear boys (Harry and Jimmy, returning home from boarding school), who bounded in at 6.15 joyful and joy giving. 

The Garfields purchased their home in Mentor, Ohio in 1876 and only spent a few holidays seasons here before James Garfield's presidency and death.  Mrs. Garfield owned the property the rest of her life and spent many holidays here with her children, grandchildren, and extended families.  We have no evidence or photos describing how they decorated the home (if at all) during the holiday season.  (NPS photo)

The Garfields purchased their home in Mentor, Ohio in 1876 and only spent a few holiday seasons here before James Garfield’s presidency and death. Mrs. Garfield owned the property the rest of her life and spent many holidays here with her children, grandchildren, and extended family. Unfortunately, we have no evidence or photos describing how or if they decorated the home during the holiday season. (NPS photo)

Even though Garfield wrote about his holiday experiences some 150 years ago, it is clear many traditions and customs never get old and change.

-Benjamin Frayser, Volunteer

Holidays with the Garfields

Though modern Americans may find it hard to believe, decorating during the winter holidays has not always been widely accepted and was actually quite slow to catch on in the United States. In fact, the entire celebration of Christmas in the U.S. is a relatively recent phenomenon. As late as 1886, the Methodist newspaper The Christian Advocate described Christmas as a day “on which more sin and sacrilege and pagan foolishness is committed than on any other day of the year.”

An early Roman calendar first mentioned December 25 as the date of Jesus Christ's birth.  It was likely influence by year-end pagan festivals to celebrate the harvest.  (www.ibiblio.org)

An early Roman calendar first mentioned December 25 as the date of Jesus Christ’s birth. It was likely influenced by year-end pagan festivals to celebrate the harvest. (www.ibiblio.org)

As members of the Disciples of Christ, James and Lucretia Garfield acknowledged the importance of the December 25 date to Christians and looked forward to the holidays as a time to come together as a family. As Victorian Americans, however, they did not do a great deal of decorating for Christmas (though they did do at least some exchanging of gifts). Therefore, the decorations you see if you visit James A. Garfield National Historic Site this time of year are small and simple, accurately reflecting both Mrs. Garfield’s personal taste and societal norms of the era.

Simple trees, often made of dried goose feathers and other readily available materials, were common during the Victorian era.  (www.countryliving.com)

Simple trees, often made of dried goose feathers and other readily available materials, were common during the Victorian era. (www.countryliving.com)

From the diary of James A. Garfield, we have a small window into his family celebrations of Christmas over the years:

December 25, 1872: Staid home all day and helped children with Christmas sport…Jimmy fell on the steps and struck his mouth on the iron railing and before he got off his lips froze to it. Had much difficulty in getting him off.

December 25, 1874: Awoke early to the exclamations of delight from the children at the presents which had been distributed during the night.

December 24, 1875: Spend most of the day with Crete selecting Christmas gifts for the children. Becoming very difficult to find appropriate gifts as they grow older. (We) purchase unnecessary things because they are pretty.

December 25, 1879: Christmas morning filled the house with joy. For several hours the children were busy with their presents and Crete and I experienced even a greater pleasure than their own in seeing their happiness.

Finally, we present this New Year’s Eve quote from President-elect Garfield during the last holiday he would spend at his beloved Mentor farm. Some interpretation of his words could lead to the conclusion that he had an inkling about what was ahead of him in the new year of 1881: 

I regret that I am too much occupied to review the impressions which the year has brought…I close the year with a sad conviction that I am bidding good-by to the freedom of private life, and to a long series of happy years, which I fear terminate with 1880.

This small tree is found in the parlor of the Garfield home eacj year during the winter holidays.  (NPS photo)

This small tree is placed in the parlor of the Garfield home each year during the winter holidays. (NPS photo)

Happy holidays from everyone at James A. Garfield National Historic Site!  We look forward to serving you in 2013!

-Allison Powell, Park Ranger