Was Buchanan a Humbug?

When guests visit Wheatland and learn about the Yuletide traditions during Buchanan’s time, many ask if Buchanan was a humbug. This question arises after hearing stories of Buchanan not celebrating with the same pomp and circumstance that we associate with the holiday today. In today’s blog post, we’ll look at some of the reasons why Buchanan’s understanding of the Yuletide season doesn’t quite match our understanding today.

A Rather Fatiguing Business

Perhaps we should start with Buchanan’s sentiments that prompt the question of his humbug-like behavior. When Buchanan served as Minister to Great Britain, he spent Christmas of 1855 in Yorkshire with his niece, Harriet, and the Duke and Duchess of Leeds. In a letter to Eskridge Lane on 4 January 1855, Buchanan wrote:

“Harriet and myself have been here since Saturday last passing a few of the Christmas Holidays with the Duke & Duchess of Leeds.  It is rather a fatiguing business for me.”

Clearly, Christmas parties rank low on Buchanan’s list. We know he preferred smaller dinner parties for more personalized socialization. Perhaps socializing with Britain’s high society was too much for him, even on Christmas. But why?

The Presbyterian Understanding of Christmas in the Mid-Victorian Era

A practicing Presbyterian, Buchanan followed his faith’s interpretation of Christmas. During Buchanan’s lifetime, the Presbyterian faith did not celebrate Christmas because of its absence in the Bible. As a result, Buchanan did not have a grandiose celebration of the holiday every year.

He did not, however, throw out the entire idea of Christmas. In fact, he seemed to support the themes of charity and good will.

On 21 December 1865, Buchanan received the gift of a turkey from his friend and doctor, Dr. Baker. On 25 December 1865, he sat down at Wheatland to write a thank you letter to his friend. In this letter, he described his sentiment on the Christmas holiday:

“Although we Presbyterians make no fuss over Christmas, yet we do not altogether despise the good things which it brings by its train.”

Some of ‘the good things’ Buchanan likely meant in his letter centered on charity and gift giving. In the winter of 1854-1855, Buchanan donated the equivalent of around $173,000 worth of firewood, coal, and oil to 244 women in need in Lancaster.

Indeed, in a letter to his niece, Harriet Lane in January 1856, he stressed the importance of giving:

“How fortunate you have been in receiving eight presents on Christmas, but those who receive ought to give & you tell me nothing of your own donations.”

Not a National Holiday in Buchanan’s Time

Did you know that Christmas is a relatively “new” holiday? President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a national holiday on 26 June 1870, two years after Buchanan’s death. Though Christmas traditions grew and people certainly celebrated prior to 1870, there wasn’t a collective acknowledgement across the nation.

Because of the different beliefs and customs, Buchanan viewed the holiday season differently than we do today. But the choice is ultimately up to you. Is Buchanan a humbug? Perhaps in some ways. Perhaps not in others. To learn more about Yuletide through the lens of Buchanan, come join us for a Yuletide at Wheatland tour. We hope to see you soon!

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. 

From History From The House