"Gleeful As A Band Of Children"
- Civil War veterans’ Christmas at the Orting Soldiers’ Home -
In the early 1900’s, Washington State women’s patriotic organizations took great care to help provide a warm and cheerful Christmas for the former Civil War soldiers who resided at the state Soldiers’ Home in Orting. The residents of the Soldiers’ Home, referred to as “inmates” at the time, were most often aged or infirm but it was not simply a hospital. The facility was more akin to a modern senior care home than a medical institution. Social activity and celebrations like that of Christmas were welcomed and enjoyed by the veterans. During these peak years of the Civil War veteran population at the Home their number ranged from 250 to 400. Providing Christmas dinner, entertainment and gifts for them was quite a challenge but one that was eagerly accepted by the ladies of the state’s patriotic orders.
Not all the veterans stayed at the Orting Home during the holidays. Some were fortunate enough to take leave from the home to travel to spend the holidays with family or friends all around Washington State. Those who remained were still treated to an enjoyable holiday. The festivities normally occurred on the Sunday following Christmas Day. Sunday was the day that the weekly Home roll call was performed. After that formality concluded, the Home superintendent and officers would get things underway.
Beginning around noon, an elaborate dinner in the Home's dining hall was provided for the men. The annual fare was described as “most appetizing” and the tables were “laden with turkey and cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and a variety of other vegetables with pies, oranges, nuts and candies for dessert. Some years' menus included such items as Irish potatoes, peas, corn, onions with cream dressing, cucumbers, beets, celery, wheat bread, graham bread, corn bread, plum pudding, mince pie, cheese, ginger cake”. The turkeys were often from the home’s own farm. At the conclusion of this enjoyable repast, the men were often treated to holiday entertainment in the form of a program of music and recitations. In some years it was provided by the area's young folks, in others a performance from the Home orchestra was the day’s offering. These entertainments were always enjoyed and left the old soldiers in “high good humor.”
The Christmas observances concluded with the distribution of gifts to the Home's inmates. Great attention was paid to ensure that every single inmate, including those who were sick or invalid, received a gift. Normally, they all gathered around a “very prettily decorated” or even “dazzling” tree in the evening as the gifts were distributed. On at least one occasion, the presents were handed out by “Santa Claus in his usual fantastic dress.” The veterans were recalled as being “gleeful as a band of children” as they happily received their Christmas gifts.
Some of the presents came from friends and relatives, some came from the savings of pension money among the inmates themselves, and some from friends of the institution. Primarily, it was the Womans Relief Corps and the Ladies of the G.A.R., the women’s kindred groups to the Grand Army of the Republic, that took on the task of providing gifts, food and entertainment to the old soldiers at Christmas. The gifts came from W.R.C. and L.G.A.R. group all across the state. Spokane, Walla Walla, Vancouver, Seattle, Bellingham and practically every location between contributed. The groups published reminders to their members of “their duty to remember the dear old comrades at the soldiers’ homes.” They suggested what type of articles would be most needed and the ladies were most generous in their efforts to provide them. The gifts “in part consisted of cushions, head-rests, towels, handkerchiefs, slippers, pin cushions, strips of carpet, quilts, comforts, tobacco pipes, candy, nuts, oranges and apples, etc., in endless variety.” The men were invariably well pleased with their gifts. One observer described the feelings of the old soldiers, saying “If the ladies could have been present and seen the happy, smiling faces of the veterans as they received their gifts, they would have been amply repaid for their trouble.”
It is doubtful any of the ladies felt their efforts to provide a wonderful Christmas holiday to the aging Civil War veterans at the Orting Soldiers’ Home as “trouble.” For the Home’s veterans, Christmas was one of the most enjoyable days of the year.
Seattle Daily Times Dec. 1899 - 1915
Seattle Post-Intelligencer Dec. 1900 - 1915
The National Tribune Feb. 1900