In colonial times Christmas was frowned upon in New England and observed mostly as a private feast in mid-Atlantic and Southern colonies. The strait-laced New England Puritans, partially motivated by anti-Catholic sentiment, banned Christmas in 1659 under the guise that the holiday was pagan and that it encouraged decadence. Colonial Americans celebrated a Christmas that contained both religious and secular elements thus establishing a uniquely balanced American approach to faith. Christmas harkens back to the ancient Roman celebration of the Saturnalia, a day in which all Romans, Emperor and slave, addressed each other on a first name basis.
Christmas was not celebrated by colonial Puritans, Presbyterians, Baptists and Quakers but it was observed by Anglicans, Dutch Reformed, Lutherans and Catholics. Drawing from various old world traditions, Christmas in colonial America included bells, mistletoe, yule logs, wreaths, eggnog, gingerbread, and various Christmas foods. The Dutch settlers of New York contributed Sinter Klass and baked deserts. Christmas was a time for charity and for giving gifts to the poor. George Washington and other southern plantation owners were known to host lavish Christmas parties. Southerners of all economic levels celebrated raucous Christmas parties that included firing muskets into the air, banging pots, drinking, feasting, playing games, and generally taking time off from work. Bands of mummers, or folk-singers, dressed in costume, would roam Colonial towns on Christmas Eve caroling, acting in skits, and making revelry.
Christmas was proclaimed a federal holiday by an executive order that was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, June 26, 1870. Since that time, Christmas has been confirmed into law by various acts of Congress and by the States. The legality of Christmas as a federal holiday has never been challenged in any American court. The American tradition has been to observe the religious aspects of Christmas in church or in the home and the secular aspects in various public forms.
There should, therefore, be no controversy around the celebration of Christmas. Indeed wishing someone a Merry Christmas should be viewed as American as wishing someone a happy Fourth of July. The general theme of Christmas as it has come to be defined, “Peace on earth, good-will toward men” is a universal theme at ought to be embraced. But what about the undeniable Christian nature of Christmas? Is it appropriate for our secular government to officially recognize what is essentially a religious holiday? The answer, to a degree, is yes.
It is an undeniable fact of history that America has been and largely remains a Christian nation. Indeed, by not establishing Christianity as a state religion, and by establishing a system of government and a society that respects religious differences and that considers all citizens to be equal under the law, America is, by its nature, a Christian nation. Christianity, unlike Islam and certain other religions, and unlike the secular political faiths of Nazism and Communism, involves a personal relationship between the believer and Jesus.
While historically Christianity has been used from time to time by secular political leaders and movements as a vehicle to obtain and enhance state power, Christianity, per se, rejects this notion. Indeed, Jesus established in his ministry the separation of church and state. Carrying forth the moral and ethical precepts of the Torah, Jesus recognized that rights emanate from the creator and not from the state.
It is indeed our Christian heritage that has made us the most successful and prosperous society ever established in human history. It is, therefore, entirely appropriate and fitting that we, as Americans, celebrate Christmas and by doing so honor and reflect upon our Christian heritage.