In 1856 a group of children sang “Away in a Manger” in the White House and played an important part in bringing a Christmas story to a beautiful and happy ending.
Two months before the inauguration of Franklin Pierce, America's 14th president, the Pierce's only surviving child, Bennie, was killed in a railroad accident. Jane Pierce, whose two other sons died in early childhood, fell into a deep melancholy. She did not attend her husband's inauguration. In fact, she wanted nothing to do with Washington, D.C. Becoming “First Lady” meant nothing to her in the face of lost motherhood. Her grief, despite her abiding Christian faith, was inconsolable.
Mrs. Pierce remained in Boston and would not leave for several days. Friends persuaded her to join her husband in the nation's capital. She got as far as Baltimore and found a hotel where she stayed for several weeks. President Pierce visited her as often as he could. At last, he was able to persuade her to accompany him back to Washington.
Poor Lady Pierce, the “very picture of melancholy,” as one person described her, had staterooms at the White House draped in black in honor of Bennie. She refused to take part in any political functions, picked out two rooms on the second floor where she secluded herself, spending much of her time writing long letters to her lost child. She would give the letters to Sidney Webster, confidential secretary to the president, who would routinely promise to get them in the mail right away. She came to exemplify, according to Washington gossips, “The Shadow of the White House.”
The First Lady's unrelieved dark mood was, naturally, of great concern to her husband as well as to White House staff members. Sidney Webster, together with some of his co-workers, hoping to bring some cheer into the life of Mrs. Pierce, came up with a bold, though psychologically risky, idea. They would arrange for a Christmas tree to be set up inside the White House and a group of youngsters to sing carols. With the president's approval, the plan went ahead. It would all be, they hoped and prayed, for Mrs. Pierce's benefit.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, the president's grieving wife was led downstairs by her husband to the door of the East Room. As the door opened, boys and girls from the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church began singing “Away in a Manger.”
Lady Pierce, completely taken by surprise, wept so vigorously that she shook. As she began to regain her composure, she became entranced by the brightly decorated tree and was beguiled by the children raising their voices in honor of a Savior born in a manger.
According to Washington tradition, Jane Pierce then produced the first radiant smile that anyone in the capital had ever seen flash upon her face. “Thank you, boys and girls, for your beautiful carols,” she said. “Keep your places, please, while Mr. Snow [the informal chief of staff] goes to see what sweetmeats Cook has made ready for your visit.” Turning to her husband and still radiant with surprise and joy, she embraced him and exclaimed: “Thank you, Mr. Pierce, for the most wonderful Christmas tree in the world. Best of all, Bennie is looking down from heaven and is enjoying it with us. That means I won't even have to write him a letter to describe it! Thank you for the most wonderful Christmas surprise I ever had!”
One cannot underestimate the magic and the grace of the Christmas season and the countless expressions of good will that come from well wishers. Honoring the babe born in Bethlehem in song provides an unfailing benediction.
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.