YOU ARE HERE -> CHRISTMAS 1856
While statesman Henry Clay had not been home for many Christmases at Ashland due to Congress being in session, once James and Susan Clay come to Ashland in the 1850s, we begin to get details of how Christmas was celebrated at the estate.
James had rebuilt the Ashland mansion between 1855 and 1856 and letters reveal that the family was indeed moved in by Christmas of 1856. Susan and her siblings corresponded about that Christmas Day.
In their letters, they relayed that the parlor contained the family piano and upon which Christmas presents were arranged. Down the stairs came “six or seven little urchins,” wild with excitement. Those ‘urchins’ were twelve-year-old Lucy, ten-year-old Jimmy, eight-year-old John, seven-year-old Harry, five-year-old TeeTee, three-year-old Tommy, and one-year-old Sukie. Susan was pregnant with their eighth child.
The children tried to figure out which presents belonged to them, but they had to have breakfast before digging into the gifts. Father James added to the excitement by handing out gold coins to the children for proficiency in their studies: two gold dollars to Lucy, John, and Harry, and one to Jimmy.
As Susan wrote to her sister describing this first Christmas at Ashland, Santa Claus appeared,
“…under a beautiful Christmas tree covered with light, candies, oranges, apples, grapes, misseltoe [sic], and holly. All of us went forward and all bowed with much politeness to old Santa Clause [sic], who returned our salutation and handed me a folded sheet of paper. We then bowed ourselves out of the room and shut the door so as to give the old fellow and opportunity to make his exit up the chimney and then all crowded round me to see what it was that he had given to me. I found that it was a letter which Santa Clause had written to the children and I read it aloud to them…
“After I got through with the letter the parlor door was again opened and there was a general rush to the tree and then such a scene, such noise, and such confusion and none would rest until the presents were distributed and then after they had time to admire their own and every body else’s they returned to the dining room and passed the evening dancing and playing and every now and then rushing into the parlor to admire the tree and presents and where the boys took the liberty of kissing the girls under the miseltoe [sic].
“I love to see children happy particularly at Christmas and I enter very cordially into their happiness. I wish particularly that my own children when they are grown and perhaps scattered over the face of the earth, may look back with pleasure to the days when they were all united under their Father’s roof and felt that they had much happiness there.”
– Susan Clay to her sister Lucy Jacob, 17 January 1857. From The Family Legacy of Henry Clay: In the Shadow of a Kentucky Patriarch, by Dr. Lindsey Apple
James, Susan, and their family enjoyed too short a time at Ashland …and a tenure that increased in sorrow. Last baby, Nathaniel, had died in May of 1862. And Christmas 1862 was the last that daughters Lucy and Sukie would celebrate; they both would die of diphtheria in 1863. Christmas 1862 was also the last that Susan and the remaining children would ever spend at Ashland because Susan began her journey late in 1863 to reunite with her husband in Canada. James was dying of tuberculosis and she would be with him at his deathbed in January of 1864.
Many thanks to Ashland docent Charlie Muntz for his excellent research. See The Filson Magazine (Fall 2005). “Browsing In Our Archives, Christmas at Ashland,” by James J. Holmberg.