The Political History of Christmas In America (or, When Christmas Wasn’t Christian Enough)

Fox News got it partially right in 2005 when it promoted the idea that liberals had declared a War on Christmas in the United States as part of an antagonism against religion.  They only got the date wrong. And the offending parties. And the motivation.

Over in good old England circa  the mid 1640s, the Puritans controlled Parliament. Among their less popular acts was placing a ban on celebrations of Christmas (and Easter too), because they viewed these holidays as not Christian enough. Christmas, as the Puritans saw it, was a holdover of pagan holidays (down to the date, December 25, which was nowhere in the Bible but lined up with various pre-Christian festivals in Europe) and an occasion for sinful revelry.  The Puritans who had settled New England later copied the Christmas ban, and even after Christmas was officially reinstated in New England in 1681, the holiday remained unpopular in the northern US through the mid-1800s.

This War on Christmas was ended in the aftermath of an actual war – the American Civil War.  After the country was ripped apart in a war over slavery (yes, Confederate apologists, slavery; not state’s rights, accept the right to own people like furniture – ok, getting down from soapbox…[the Confederacy was racist]…now), the triumphant federal government looked for ways to unify the country.  President Lincoln’s words and tone of reconciliation had started this process, and the national mourning over his death continued to bring together northerners and southerners. The federal government managed this reunification through Reconstruction, the set of policies by which federal troops and bureaucracy managed the former Confederate states to reincorporate them into the Union while also promoting the rights of newly freed black Americans. Reconstruction had been imagined by Lincoln, the beefed up and  passed by Radical Republicans in Congress over the vetoes of Lincoln’s successor, President Andrew Johnson. (Fun fact: the Republican Congress, largely motivated by frustrations with Johnson using the veto power to oppose Reconstruction measures, impeached Johnson for firing a high ranking cabinet member for political reasons in defiance of the law; “why would I bring that up?” Oh, no reason. No reason at all…).

By 1870, Civil War hero Ulysses S. Grant was now President, Reconstruction was ramped up under his leadership (for instance, he created the Justice Department largely to uphold the rights of freed black Americans and to prosecute the Ku Klux Klan – the Deparment’s mission has waxed and waned a bit since then).  It was during Grant’s presidency that Congress took up a suggestion by a group of Washington,D.C. “bankers and business men” that New Year’s Day, July 4 and December 25 be made holidays by the federal government.  Unlike in New England, Christmas had been a popular holiday in the American South prior to the War, and the holiday had grown in importance for many American families in the midst of the war.  President Grant signed Christmas and the other holidays into law as part of his efforts to bring the country together. Christmas, which had gained in regional popularity due to works such as Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, has remained a staple of American culture ever since.

Merry Christmas everyone!