Who started “the war on Christmas”?

A White House Christmas tree

I’ll cut to the chase. There is no “war on Christmas.” It’s a phony, ginned up annual attempt for a small set of Americans to express their cultural grievances.

But you, dear readers, deserve more than that.

So I’ll offer some personal reflections and a bit of history.

As someone who celebrates Jewish Christmas — a movie and Chinese food — it seems beyond absurd to think Christmas is anything put pervasive.

Between the constant Christmas songs and crowded stores and many beautifully decorated trees and strangers who used to ask my kids what they thought Santa would bring them and others who tell me “Merry Christmas” (and, no, I’m not offended, although, even though I know they were meant with the greatest warmth and sincerity, the comments to my non-Christmas celebrating kids were kind of a bit much), Christmas is everywhere.

Actually, there was one Christmas day, eighteen years ago, that was different. It was the one when one of my oldest friends and I, both of us visibly pregnant, got together in a neighborhood of Brooklyn populated by orthodox Jews. All the stores and restaurants were open and we had a lovely time people-watching, going to the diner and popping in and out of stores. There was no Christmas in Borough Park.

Truthfully, I enjoy parts of Christmas, especially It’s a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol (the book, the old versions of the movie and the radio version with Jonathan Winters doing all the parts that airs on Public Radio), and the classical music associated with Christmas. Also my parents used to watch Midnight Mass from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, a high church ritual that was really something. I’ve gone to churches to hear Handel’s Messiah and I enjoy The Grinch who stole Christmas and the Charlie Brown Christmas special. All that is very nice.

As a dear friend of mine, also Jewish, said, it’s like someone else’s birthday party. You can enjoy it even when it’s not your holiday. And I do. (Then again, it’s sort of as if people kept asking you to say “happy birthday” to them for about six weeks beforehand and kept playing their special birthday songs.)

But the idea that Christmas has always been a national holiday? Wrong.

Those who say there’s a war on Christmas act as if America’s founders and great leaders promoted Christmas as a national holiday, celebrated publicly.

You get that impression from Susan Dench’s “War on Christmas” column when she says:

By choosing to live here, new citizens must also accept our practices, values and traditions, the things upon which our greatness was founded.

This implies that “our greatness was founded” on Christmas, somehow.

Yet the Pilgrims not only didn’t celebrate Christmas, but they thought it was to be avoided.

The Pilgrims who came to America in 1620 were strict Puritans, with firm views on religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter. Scripture did not name any holiday except the Sabbath, they argued, and the very concept of “holy days” implied that some days were not holy. “They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday,” was a common Puritan maxim.

Puritans were particularly contemptuous of Christmas, nicknaming it “Foolstide” and banning their flock from any celebration of it throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. On the first Dec. 25 the settlers spent in Plymouth Colony, they worked in the fields as they would on any other day. The next year, a group of non-Puritan workmen caught celebrating Christmas with a game of “stoole-ball” — an early precursor of baseball — were punished by Gov. William Bradford. [source]

But what about great Americans like Washington and Lincoln?

As former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum notes, “George Washington issued a proclamation on Thanksgiving, but he never made any statement about Christmas (or Easter for that matter).”

The Senate and House of Representatives met on Christmas sometimes in the early days of the republic.

And Abraham Lincoln? In 1834, as a state representative, he voted against making Christmas a legal holiday. Yet it was a non-issue for his political career.

Not a single state in the Union closed its offices for Christmas on December 25 in 1834. 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.

So, when it comes to a set of events and timeline that could support “our greatness was founded” on public celebrations of Christmas, well, those simply don’t exist.

In any case, if you celebrate Christmas, have a good one! Let it be the mix of merriness and spirituality and togetherness you most desire.

And to everyone, enjoy whatever you do Christmas Day and have a happy New Year!

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.