Christmas in America, a primer

December 25, 2021

I have absolutely no hard data to back up what I’m about to say, but I’m willing to bet that if you asked the proverbial man/woman on the street “When did America start celebrating Christmas as a national holiday”? you’d get a plurality of “the pilgrims” or “from our founding” responses.

And you couldn’t blame them.  For a nation that has been immersed for two and a half centuries of the story of the Pilgrims, Plymouth Rock and the first Thanksgiving it’s only natural that today’s Americans might think that the those same Pilgrims and the government that would follow looked upon Christmas as equal to Thanksgiving in the national psyche.

Yet that natural tendency couldn’t be more wrong.  I myself was well into adulthood before I learned the twists and turns of the historical path of Christmas in America.

From the Pilgrims spending their first December 25 in 1620 working their fields to Christmas Day in 1659 when celebrating the holiday was officially banned.  For the next 22 years outwardly displaying your Christmas spirit in Massachusetts could garner you a quite pricey for the time five shilling fine.

Yes, the colony that birthed the Boston Tea Party and the battles of Lexington and Concord that sparked the American Revolution in the late 1700’s was the same one setting fines for celebrating Christmas in the 1600’s.

To be fair, what the Puritans of the day were actually against was the drunkenness and debauchery that had become all too common in their mother country of England during the twelve days of Christmas that followed the fasting of Advent.

As the colonies expanded and populations grew, the Puritan’s grip on colonial America weakened.  Facing growing public backlash, the original ban on Christmas was repealed in 1681. Yet while the fines may have been lifted, it would still be another two centuries before America, the nation, recognized Christmas Day as a public holiday.

For those of us who learned our American history via the superficial books of the day and tests focused on memorizing names and dates the person responsible for putting Christmas on the official holiday calendar will come as a surprise.  The official biography I received in high school was that of a cold-hearted commander with no regard for human life, a drunkard, and a chief executive whose administration was riddled with scandal and corruption.

And unless you’ve read the more recent biographies that delve below the stereotypes it’s most likely your impression of the man as well.  When he took the oath of office, he was the youngest President to date.  His “Let us have peace” campaign slogan leading him to a 214 to 80 electoral college victory and almost 53 percent of the popular vote.

His name is Ulysses S. Grant and it was his signature on the following bill that brought the 25th of December onto the official holiday calendar for the District of Columbia which we observe today:

“An Act making the first Day of January, the twenty-fifth Day of December, the fourth Day of July, and Thanksgiving Day, Holidays, within the District of Columbia. Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the following days, to wit: The first day of January, commonly called New Year’s day, the fourth day of July, the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day, and any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fast or thanksgiving, shall be holidays within the District of Columbia, and …and all notes, drafts, checks, or other commercial or negotiable paper falling due or maturing on either of said holidays shall be deemed as having matured on the day previous.”

APPROVED, June 28, 1870 by President Ulysses S. Grant.

Yes, the man who presided over the deaths of multitudes on the battlefield was the same man who brought into law the setting aside of the date contemporary history marks as the birth of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.

To some, that might seem oxymoronic, but when you take the time to get past the stereotypes, Grant was far more a man of peace and reconciliation than he was a monger of war.  As a general, he fought to save the union, as a President he fought to heal the wounds.

A reminder for all of us in these fractured times that no matter what we think we know, there’s always more to learn.

I leave you today with those four words that are as true today as they were in 1868:  “Let us have peace.”  To each and all, no matter your faith, a blessed and Merry Christmas.

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