At age 64 longtime Gainesville resident Sarah Hamilton Matheson started a Christmas tradition that continued for three decades. Between 1963 and 1995 Mrs. Matheson, the widow of former Gainesville mayor Chris Matheson, sent out annual Christmas letters that reflected upon life in Gainesville and around the world. Sarah Matheson’s Christmas newsletters open a window into Gainesville’s past that also sheds light on the changing times of the late twentieth century.
In the early 1960s Sarah Matheson taught for two years in Korea, at the height of the Cold War. When she returned to Gainesville she spoke about her missionary work in Korea to audiences around the state. “This fall, my talks have centered more on Southern Asia,” she mentioned in her 1963 newsletter, “since that is our area of study and I had visited India, Kashmir, Pakistan, etc. on my trip around the world.” Souvenirs Matheson collected on her travels are displayed inside the 1867 Matheson house, one of the three oldest homes in the Gainesville area.
In addition to souvenirs, Matheson collected international students. Although she and Chris Matheson never had children, after her husband’s death Sarah opened her house to young people from around the world. “I enjoy living in Gainesville at the Matheson home, where I have two fine students who keep me company,” she wrote in 1964. “At Thanksgiving I had three Koreans and one each from India and Taiwan for meals and visits in the home.”
A sophisticated world traveler, Matheson found living in Gainesville to be “very delightful,” she wrote in her inaugural Christmas newsletter. Gainesville looked quite different in 1963. For starters, the University of Florida was much smaller. “The people are so friendly and the great University of Florida with over 14,000 students furnishes many cultural advantages,” she wrote to her many friends and family members.
Sarah Matheson interacted with community members and the university on a regular basis in her roles as a public speaker and church visitor for First Presbyterian Church, where she assisted Dr. Ulysses S. “Preacher” Gordon by visiting the ill, elderly and potential new members. “I average at least 140 visits a month and wish it could be more,” she wrote. In her 1968 Christmas newsletter Matheson reported increasing her visits to an average of 250 per month. This was even more remarkable considering that just the year before she broke her hip after being struck by a car while she was walking by the post office. Always the optimist, she wrote that the accident gave her a much-needed rest.
In her 1969 Christmas newsletter Sarah Matheson reflected upon the many changes that had occurred over the past decade, which she said some called the “Sick Sixties.” Matheson placed a more positive spin on the Age of Aquarius. “It has been filled with excitement of new scientific discoveries—heart transplants, space exploration, with two successful walks on the moon and safe returns, the shock of assassinations, clash of war, revolts, marches, hippies, drugs, population explosion,” she wrote, “but also progress in many areas and signs of new workings of the Holy Spirit in our world.”
Also in 1969 Preacher Gordon retired after serving as minister of First Presbyterian Church for 40 years. Matheson discussed some of the changes that took place in the church after Leslie Tucker assumed the position of minister. “Just recently I was elected the first woman elder in First Church,” she wrote. “This will carry new responsibilities, but it will be a privilege to serve in the same church where my husband and his father both served as elders.”
The following year Matheson remarked upon how rare it was for a woman to hold this position within church leadership when she attended a Presbyterian general assembly meeting in Memphis, Tennessee. “I was the only woman elder from Suwannee Presbytery or the Synod of Florida,” she stated. “In fact there were only nine women elders present among over four hundred men. This was a high privilege which I shall always cherish.”
In 1969 the City of Gainesville celebrated its centennial. As part of the festivities Sarah Matheson gave a talk on the history of Gainesville and Florida titled “Fact and Fiction in Florida.” Part of her discussion focused on the contributions her husband’s grandfather, Judge Augustus Steele, made to Florida’s development. In 1834 Steele played a key role in establishing Hillsborough County, which once stretched from south of present-day Ocala to the northern tip of Lake Okeechobee.
Sarah Matheson’s 1973 Christmas newsletter begins with a personal reflection on the Watergate crisis. According to Matheson, 1973 was “a year filled with joy—yes, but also with pain and distress over the loss of honesty and integrity in our nation. Let us hope that through the ‘Water Gate Episode’ and the ‘Energy Crisis’ some needed lessons may be found.”
Sarah Matheson’s 1981 Christmas letter contained a brave account of a tragic episode that occurred that year. “I was attacked by a robber who broke into my house on March 3; stole 36 silver spoons,” she recounted. She was 80 years old. “Two vertebrae in my back were hurt so that I spent a week in the Alachua General Hospital. Friends overwhelmed me with kindness—visits, flowers, gifts and several hundred cards.” As a testament to her indomitable spirit, Matheson recovered quickly and attended the National Council for International Visitors Conference in Washington, D.C. just two weeks later. The following year she traveled to mainland China and climbed the Great Wall.
In 1985 there was a major fire at the Matheson house. The damage was so severe that Sarah was unable to live there for most of the year. “It could have been much worse,” she wrote. “No lives were lost. My sincere thanks go to the many friends who rushed to help. I was overwhelmed with kindness. Thanks go also to the firemen who labored in the cold to save what they could.”
During restoration of the house central heat and air conditioning were added for the first time. After the fire Matheson found a University of Florida student to live in the upstairs apartment. “He is my friend and protector,” Matheson stated in her 1985 Christmas letter, which she ended with as much optimism as she was able to muster after a difficult year. “It is my prayer that 1986 will bring to each of you joy and peace with less terrorism, injustice, and tragedies than the world has experienced in 1985.”
Matheson opened her 1990 Christmas letter with an ominous message: “Happy greetings to each of you even in the midst of rumors of war and depression.” The Persian Gulf War began the following month. The recession of 1990-1991 contributed to George H. W. Bush’s defeat in the 1992 presidential election.
In 1991 Matheson was happy to report the opening of the Headquarters Library on East University Avenue, “my next door neighbor just across the Sweetwater Branch.” At the reception there was a preview of the forthcoming Matheson Historical Center (now the Matheson History Museum), which opened in 1994. The museum’s board of directors held a special 90th birthday party for Sarah Matheson with a cake that actually had 90 candles. “It is really great to be 90,” she wrote. “I have been celebrating all year.”
Matheson closed her 1991 Christmas letter with a brief account of the year’s historic headlines, including the Persian Gulf War, the breakdown of communism in the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany. “May the New Year bring us peace and good will,” she wrote.
In 1994 Matheson reported that on February 28 James F. Painter, the mayor of Gainesville, read a proclamation and declared March 12 as Sarah Hamilton Matheson Day. On that same date 150 people gathered at the former American Legion Hall to join Sarah Matheson in observing the official dedication of the Matheson History Museum. “The mayor and his 8 year old daughter Page and I cut the ribbons and,” Matheson added, “opening the door, I welcomed both young and old to enter and begin its use for all to enjoy.”
In 1995, in her longest and last Christmas newsletter, Sarah Matheson observed that former Matheson board president Meg Neiderhofer, who had become the arborist for the City of Gainesville, hoped to plant 1,000 trees in the city that year, starting with a public tree planting ceremony at the Matheson. “With a golden shovel I turned the dirt for the first shovel full of dirt to plant the first of 17 beautiful live oak trees along the path leading from the Matheson house to the downtown Library Building,” she wrote. “Channel 20 TV and the Gainesville Sun gave the gathering full coverage with a silent wish for strength and endurance as the 17 trees were planted with the hope that future generations will appreciate the work done here on November 9, 1995 sponsored by the Matheson Historical Center.”
On December 5, 1996 at age 95, Sarah Matheson died peacefully at home. She willed the Matheson house to the Matheson History Museum, where her legacy lives on. The house is open to the public and still looks much as it did when Sarah lived there. Each year it is decorated for Christmas during the Matheson’s Polar Express Train Show.
A condensed version of this article appears in the December/January issue of Gainesville Magazine.
Learn more about Alachua County and Florida history through the Matheson History Museum’s daily History Mystery Facebook series.