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Christmas Greetings in Wartime

ON December 21, 2023

by Amy Kurtz Lansing

Featured Image: Henry Cooke White, ca. 1925. Lyme Historical Society Archives, Florence Griswold Museum

Writing to Julia Gilman Clark (1873–1963) on December 20, 1941, Lyme Colony artist Henry C. White (1861–1952) reflected upon the sober times as the United States entered World War II:

Dear Julia,

We are not sending any Christmas cards this year, as for one thing, it seems slightly ironical to use such phrases as ‘Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men,’ at the moment. What little vitality we have left is now devoted to ‘Defense’; so please accept this as our season’s greetings to you all.

The Whites and the Clarks were dear friends in Hartford as well as on the shoreline, where Henry had built a seaside home in Waterford and Mrs. Clark’s family had inherited a 1914 cottage in the enclave of Old Black Point. Julia and her late husband, Hartford Probate Judge Walter Haven Clark (1872–1939), had two daughters, Dorothy (1911–2007) and Eleanor (1904–1995), with whom White also corresponded. The letters between White and the Clark family spanning the 1920s-1940s are a recent donation to the Museum’s Lyme Historical Society Archives by Eleanor and James Ferguson.

Letter, Henry C. White to Mrs. Walter H. Clark, December 20, 1941. Lyme Historical Society Archives, Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of Eleanor and James Ferguson

Julia Gilman Clark. Photograph courtesy of Eleanor Ferguson

In a letter to Julia several months earlier, on May 7, 1941, Henry reflects upon his friendship with her and Walter, who had died two years earlier: “Your mention of the summer you spent in the Nichols house here in Waterford recalls some of our happiest memories of both you and Walter, for Nelson [Henry’s son Nelson C. White (1900–1989)] and I have always said, with emphasis, that, of all our friends, you and Walter had the keenest understanding and the most delightful appreciation of country people everywhere.” Encouraging Julia, who had been battling illness, he continued, “As for your and Walter’s domestic life, I must say again, at the risk of repetition, that we all, Nelson, Ida [daughter-in-law Aida (“Ida”) White (1897–2002)], my parents and I, have always been deeply impressed by the sight and knowledge of it, as a perfect and beautiful thing. It has been a joy and an inspiration to witness.”

Contemplating what to write to Julia as the holidays approached, White penned the words in his Christmas letter only two weeks after Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941, and Congress declared war on Imperial Japan the following day. The solemnity of his message—mailed in an envelope whose postage was cancelled with a stamp reading “Red Cross Roll Call—Join”—was a departure from the humor that typically permeated his letters to the Clark family. Henry’s irrepressible wit resurfaces later in the letter when he teasingly remarks to Julia that he has not heard recently from her elder daughter, writing with a wartime metaphor that “I have had no response from Eleanor and I fear my just punishment for my many sins has overtaken me at last and that she finally has severed diplomatic relations.” That cloud soon faded when, in a letter written on December 29, 1941, Henry informed Julia that he had received a letter from Eleanor. He sent both women his joyful congratulations on the addition of a baby to Eleanor’s family.

War and the state of the world was often on White’s mind, as expressed in his May 7 letter, when he wrote to Julia, “As for the war, what can we say of it, or what can we do about it?” He continued, “My hope is that we may aid the English in time to defeat the Germans.” Noting that his Nelson was “beyond draft age,” he sent Julia “sympathies” and “prayers” for her sons-in-law.

Nelson C. White, Illustrated Christmas card, 1948. Lyme Historical Society Archives, Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of Eleanor and James Ferguson

In happier Decembers than 1941 when the country was not at war, White joined with his son Nelson and daughter-in-law Ida, with whom he lived in Waterford, in mailing Christmas cards to the Clarks. One, dated 1948 and signed by Nelson—an artist like his father—illustrates Nelson’s drawing of a round relief sculpture, and another undated card reproduces his painting Sterling Creek, Greenport, a view near the White family’s other home on Shelter Island, N.Y. A third card to the Clarks offering best wishes for Christmas and the New Year is inscribed “from Henry C. White and Ida and Nelson White.” Through the years and events both personal and global, the White-Clark correspondence traces a friendship across the generations.

Christmas card reproducing Sterling Creek, Greenport by Nelson C. White. Lyme Historical Society Archives, Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of Eleanor and James Ferguson

Christmas card from the Whites to the Clarks. Lyme Historical Society Archives, Florence Griswold Museum, Gift of Eleanor and James Ferguson