A while back, I posted about Mary Lincoln’s close friend Mercy Conkling (née Levering). In December 1862, the Conklings’ oldest son, Clinton, was attending college at Yale, where he remained over the Christmas holidays. Accordingly, on December 28, 1862, his mother wrote to him to tell him of the family’s celebrations back home in Springfield, Illinois, particularly the Christmas tree she had erected.
I mentioned that I intended to have a tree for the little children, and so for more than two weeks I was just as busy as a bee! preparing little articles of decorations, presents etc. Nannie, Charley and Jim contributing largely their part. And when Christmas night came our tree was in full bloom with hues of all colors, not fruit, or flowers, but very many beautiful articles, and gifts that gladdened the hearts of the little ones. Yes! and old ones too! I had intended to have the tree opened on Christmas night, but the whole day and evening was so stormy and such terrific thunder and lightning that I deferred our frolic for the next evening. . . . I do assure you we had a nice, merry time. I had invited quite a number of little ones, but curiosity brought many older ones, and all seemed equally happy, and pronounced my tree very handsome. So it was! and without complimenting myself for good taste, I tell you it was beautiful! I do wish Clint you could have seen it. Mr. and Mrs. Baker were among the older ones and said they never saw anything of the kind so well arranged and so handsome. Mr. Baker thought it was a perfect success. On the top of the tree I placed a large doll nicely dressed as the Goddess of Liberty, holding in her hand that beautiful flag you got at Baltimore, around her were scattered various devises, in the form of book marks etc. At the foot of the tree stood a beautiful boy doll, in Highland costume, holding a girl by the hand, around them was a space about a yard square, which Jim had fixed up with a neat little fence made of thin paste board. In this we had six beautiful little rabbits, as white as snow, only four weeks old, the little creatures seemed perfectly joyous, and added a very novel, and very pretty feature to the entertainment. Old and young seemed delighted at the sight, and many were the enquiries, “where they came from?” Charley received some very handsome presents. Henry Ridgely hung on the tree for him, a beautiful pocket knife, and one for Jim. Mrs. N. Edwards [Mary Lincoln’s older sister] gave each one a handsome photographic album. Some one gave them both another knife. Uncle William a nice purse each. My self each a [pair of] slippers besides other things I cannot mention. Alice & Annie were quite as highly favored. Mrs. Baker sent Annie a beautiful little gold basket containing a gold thimble and also a basket to Alice besides a very handsome box full of choice candy. . . . But the crowning thing was Father’s gift to me, even, a portrait of himself! perfect surprise to me. It is splendid! and a perfect likeness. Oh! how much I do value it, and how glad you will be to see it! . . . [Y]ou were not forgotten on the tree, hung there were some little articles intended for you, which I will send by your father. . . .
I wish I had time, or strength of sight, and I would amuse you with a description of the Santi-Claus that we had at our church.
James Conkling, Mercy’s husband, also wrote to Clinton. In his letter, dated New Year’s Eve, James gave his son a stodgy parental lecture on not skipping the college’s religious or literary exercises, but then added in a more festive vein, “Last evening they had a tree at the 3 Church–tonight at the 1st Church and sundry others have been decorated at other places. The children generally think that Christmas is a grand institution.”
And so do I, so Merry Christmas, everyone!