Happy traditional American holiday season observance

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.

First the good news, then the better news, then the bad news

The good news is this: Congress has reached a budget deal.  Yes, the U.S. Congress.  And not when facing a deadline.  America’s guests have done a thing that is rare in this day—their jobs.  Here are the details; I’m most enthused at the idea that enough members showed enough maturity and leadership to actually work out some agreement, one which means we and the world can go two years without having to fret about a government shutdown.

Now to the better news, which I would actually classify as a Christmas miracle if I were given to assuming that God takes sides in American politics (or sports): the mainstream Republican Party is showing signs of finally standing up to the conservative extremists.  Speaker of the House John Boehner was the first to publicly, honestly, express his exasperation with the tea partyish crowd that has pushed the GOP so far to the edge of American politics that they have to stand on each other’s shoulders a mile high in order to see the center.  He reportedly got even more “honest” in private:

“They are not fighting for conservative principles,” Mr. Boehner told rank-and-file House Republicans during a private meeting on Wednesday as he seethed and questioned the motives of the groups for piling on against the plan before it was even made public.

“They are not fighting for conservative policy,” he continued, according to accounts of those present. “They are fighting to expand their lists, raise more money and grow their organizations, and they are using you to do it. It’s ridiculous.”

The conservatives of course defended themselves, which is perfectly fine; I hope the center and the far right keep this back-and-forth going ad infinitum (we’re already well past ad nauseum).  For however long they fight with each other—and these things don’t last as long as you might wish them to—it keeps them from concentrating their fire outside the circle; maybe that keeps the extremists from winning more elections and coming into real power to remake America in their own frightening image.

One more politics thing: did you see who was cited by PolitiFact for the Lie of the Year?  Yep, our president.  Selected by a reader poll from among ten finalists, “If you like your health plan, you can keep it” was chosen by 59%, the winner going away and embarassingly ahead of popular favorites like “Congress is exempt from the healthcare law” (Ted Cruz), “No U.S.-trained doctors will accept Obamacare” (Ann Coulter) and “Muslims are exempt from Obamacare” (chain email).  President Obama’s catchy little reassurance actually worked its way up over the years from “half true” to “pants on fire” and now Lie of the Year.  Congratulations, Mr. President, for finding a way to help the self-defeating conservatives survive the circular firing squad.

It’s a shame to think that I think like this

But, I do: I was surprised—pleasantly surprised—to see the headline “Ted Cruz, Newt Gingrich Defend Mandela Against GOP Critics.”

My new senator hasn’t impressed me much, not during the campaign last year or since he’s been in office.  He’s been unapologetic up to now at toeing the ultraconserative Tea Party line, pandering to some of the least “American” elements in American society…the very people who are criticizing him now for his glowing praise for Nelson Mandela: “He endured decades of imprisonment and steadfastly continued his fight for equality.  And, when justice prevailed in his battle against apartheid, and Mandela was elected president of his nation, he nobly chose reconciliation instead of retribution — a legacy for which he will be remembered forever.”  Cruz is even making the trip to South Africa for the Mandela memorial as part of a congressional delegation.

When I saw the headline I thought, “Cruz disagreed with the right-wing fringe?  Did I read that right?”  Sure enough…and now it turns out that, not only do I share an opinion on an issue with Ted Cruz, but I have to add a new exercise to my workout: fighting the urge to jump to conclusions.