OK, you’ve finally convinced me. Things were never better than when things were the way they were, back in the good old days when everyone believed in the Constitution and Americans weren’t afraid of their religious heritage; you know, back in the generation of the Founding Fathers and after that, when America was the way God meant it to be:
Not a single state in the Union closed its offices for Christmas on December 25 in 1834. [Abraham] Lincoln marked his first Christmas as President, in December 1861, by holding a Cabinet meeting in the morning and a dinner party in the evening. The Lincoln family never had a White House tree and sent no Christmas cards.
Nobody was much shocked by these omissions.
The public Christmas as Americans know it today did not take form until late in the 19th century. George Washington issued a proclamation on Thanksgiving, but he never made any statement about Christmas (or Easter for that matter). The first state to recognize Christmas as a holiday was Alabama, in 1836, but the North and especially New England resisted. Not until 1856 did Massachusetts accept Christmas as a holiday. The federal government took until 1870 to follow.
David Frum writes that the American attitude about Christmas “back in the day” was one that I think we should learn from. First, he argues that Americans back then absolutely insisted on keeping church separated from state because of how much they cared about their religions, because they didn’t want government favoring one religion over another: “Better to deliver the mail on Sunday than debate who was right about the Sabbath. Better to issue no religious proclamations than let presidents pick and choose which holy days to mark and how to mark them.”
A second fact also explains the coolness of the early national government to Christianity: the keen awareness of many 19th century Christians of the non-Christian origins of many Christmas traditions.
Christmas is celebrated near the date of the old Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Gift-giving on the day was also a Roman tradition. The Christmas tree, the hanging of wreaths and house-to-house caroling hark back to the pre-Christian German holiday of Yule.
Calvinists had abandoned their outright ban on Christmas observance on the late 17th century. But many Protestant denominations retained a lingering suspicion of the holiday until deep into the 19th century.
Fox News and its co-conspirators can rattle on all they want to about taking Christ out of Christmas and about the terrible secularization of the season, even while filling the rest of the day with ad after ad after insidious Christmas sale ad, but they’re missing (or ignoring) an important point. That is, the Christmas they claim to be defending is not the Christmas of the birth of Jesus.
It is the Christmas of folkway that is the Christmas so passionately defended by those who talk about “the war on Christmas.”
The Christmas of Santa and Rudolph, and trees and stockings, and candy canes and “Merry Christmas” greetings began to be most publicly celebrated in the United States only after — and only because — the religious impetus for the holiday had already dwindled away.