The White House observance of Christmas before the twentieth century was not an official event. First families decorated the house modestly with greens and privately celebrated the Yuletide with family and friends.
Christmas in Early America: the Pilgrims and Puritans of New England found no Biblical precedent for a public celebration of Christmas (recall that the goal of these groups was to simplify religious worship and to cut away all religious rituals and celebrations not specifically cited in the Bible); nothing in the Bible established any date for the birth of Christ; the holiday was instead established by Roman tradition, thus making it – in their view – one of the many “pagan” holidays that had been inculcated into the corrupt church that had persecuted them, and which they and other religious leaders wished to reform. Consequently, Christmas in New England remained a regular working day. In fact, Massachusetts passed an anti-Christmas law in 1659 declaring: “Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas . . . shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.” The law was repealed in 1681, but the holiday still was not celebrated by religious non-conformists or dissenters (i.e., the Puritans and Pilgrims); it usually was celebrated only by a few Anglicans (later Episcopalians), Catholics, and other more formal or high-church-tradition New England families. It was not until the 1830s and 1840s that Christmas celebrations were just beginning to be accepted in New England (primarily due to the influence of large-scale Christmas celebrations in cities such as New York) – although as late as 1870 in Boston public schools, a student missing school on Christmas Day could be punished or expelled. By the 1880s, however, Christmas celebrations had finally become as accepted in New England as they were in other parts of the country.
Even though Christmas did not become a national holiday until 1870, it has a centuries old history in America. Interestingly, in colonial America, the southern regions that were more directly linked to High-Church traditions (e.g., Anglicans, Catholics, Episcopalians) celebrated Christmas; but the northern regions especially linked to Low-Church traditions (e.g., Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers) did not. Those Low-Church colonists associated the pomp and grandeur of Christmas celebrations directly with the autocratic leaders and monarchs in Europe that they so opposed.
Massachusetts therefore passed an anti-Christmas law in 1659, and it was not until the 1830s and 1840s that Christmas celebrations became accepted in New England (although as late as 1870, a student missing school on Christmas Day in Boston public schools could be punished or expelled). But by the 1880s, Christmas celebrations were finally accepted across the country and began to appear at the White House. For example:
Christmas was celebrated by our national leaders as a religious holiday, not the secular holiday it has become.
For example, every Christmas Eve, President Teddy Roosevelt and his family would pile into the family sleigh (later the motor car) and travel to a Christmas service at Christ Church in Oyster Bay, New York. Following the pastor’s sermon, Teddy would deliver one of his famous “sermonettes” on the true meaning of Christmas and then close the service with one of his favorite hymns, “Christmas By the Sea.”
President Franklin Roosevelt would set up and decorate a tree on Christmas Eve, gather the family round him, and either read Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” or recite it from memory. (The original story is quite different from the modern movies by that name and is well worth the read.) He would also deliver explicitly religious Christmas Eve messages to the nation. For example, in 1944 following D-Day, he said:
Here, at home, we will celebrate this Christmas Day in our traditional American way – because of its deep spiritual meaning to us; because the teachings of Christ are fundamental in our lives; and because we want our youngest generation to grow up knowing the significance of this tradition and the story of the coming of the immortal Prince of Peace and good will. . . . [FDR then prayed a prayer for the troops, and closed with:] We pray that with victory will come a new day of peace onearth in which all the Nations of the earth will join together for all time. That is the spirit of Christmas, the holy day. May that spirit live and grow throughout the world in all the years to come.
(I recommend you go online to the American Presidency Project and look up and especially read some Christ-centered Christmas messages from Presidents, such as that of Franklin Roosevelt in 1935, Harry Truman in 1949 or 1952, Ronald Reagan in 1982 or 1985, George W. Bush in 2003, and there are many additional examples. You should also watch President Reagan deliver one of his Christmas addresses.)
In recent years, there has been a relentless push from secularists and progressives to transform Christmas. Schools, government offices, and many commercial stores have replaced Merry Christmas with Happy Holidays to appease critics, not realizing that 93% of Americans celebrate Christmas, and 97% are not bothered by the use of the phrase “Merry Christmas.” Yet far too often, the 3% seems to drive public policy; Americans need to push back.
Gratefully, religious Jews have been some of the strongest advocates for keeping Christmas a religious celebration. For example, Burt Prelutsky, a Jewish columnist for a number of national publications, declares:
I never thought I’d live to see the day that Christmas would become a dirty word. . . . How is it, one well might ask, that in a Christian nation this is happening? . . . Speaking as a member of a minority group – and one of the smaller ones at that – I say it behooves those of us who don’t accept Jesus Christ as our savior to show some gratitude to those who do, and to start respecting the values and traditions of the overwhelming majority of our fellow citizens, just as we keep insisting that they respect ours. Merry Christmas, my friends!
Orthodox Jewish Rabbi Daniel Lapin agrees:
Secular fundamentalism has successfully injected into American culture the notion that the word “Christmas” is deeply offensive. . . . Anti-Christianism is unhealthy for all Americans; but I warn my brethren that it will prove particularly destructive for Jews. . . . Let us all go out of our way to wish our many wonderful Christian friends – a very merry Christmas. Just remember, America’s Bible belt is our safety belt.
So . . . Merry Christmas!!!
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Written by David Barton at WallBuilders.com.
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