You probably know Abraham Lincoln started the annual national observance of Thanksgiving in 1863. I talked about it in my blog “Thanksgiving a ‘Yankee Abolitionist Holiday.’” Newspapers today regularly mention Lincoln’s connection to the day we reduce America’s turkey population each year, though I do not recall ever hearing about it when I was growing up. No, I was not born before Lincoln was president. Smart alecks in every crowd, mutter, snort …
Less commonly known is that Lincoln’s successor in office, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant, is credited with establishing national observances of Christmas and New Year’s Day.
There had been Thanksgiving observances in America before Lincoln’s presidency, but he established it as an annual November event. Likewise, of course, Christmas observances and celebrations in America date to colonial times, even though celebrations of the day were banned in Massachusetts until 1833. The straight-laced Puritans thought Christmas to be more of a pagan holiday. The date of December 25 was chosen by the Western Church in the third or fourth century to supplant pagan celebrations of the birth of the new sun on that day, considered to be the solstice back then. Since the Catholic Church selected the date, the whole thing also smacked of “popery” to Puritans.
On June 28, 1870, in the middle of Grant’s first term as president, he signed a Congressional bill authorizing Christmas day as a legal, unpaid holiday for federal employees in Washington, D.C., a rather tepid beginning. Before long it was extended to all federal employees but wasn’t a paid holiday for them until 1938. The 1870 bill also established the Fourth of July and New Year’s Day as holidays, though most Americans had been celebrating those for years.
So why “establish” holidays that were already widely observed?
Business and politics. Influential bankers pushed to formalize holiday observances nationwide rather than have a patchwork of them interrupting business on different days in different places. On the political side was a desire to move past the bitterness of the Late Unpleasantness and speed the reunification of the country. Nothing brings people together like sharing a nationwide drunken celebration—and make no mistake, the Fourth of July, New Year’s Day and Christmas were all marked by rowdy debauchery in the nineteenth century. Said debauchs were another reason for Puritan opposition to observing Christmas with anything other than church services and prayer.
Technically, the federal government can’t order states to observe holidays on certain dates, but the closing of federal offices and the convenience of single-day observances pretty much assure folks in Portland, Maine, will be eating turkey or opening presents on the same day as folks in Portland, Oregon.
The path to a national Christmas observance was already being paved with the relatively new practices of sending Christmas cards and decorating evergreen trees. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Albert started a widespread practice of decorating trees in England based on traditions in Albert’s native Germany. Godey’s Ladies Book ran engravings of the royal couple’s tree, and the Lincolns became the first to have a “Christmas tree” in the White House.
The modern image of a plump, dimpled Santa Claus had been placed in the American mind by Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (now better known as “The Night Before Christmas”), which first appeared in print in 1823. That image was cemented by the great illustrator Thomas Nast, whose drawing of Santa Claus delivering presents to Union soldiers appeared on the cover of Harpers Weekly on January 3, 1863. Nast went on to create a number of Santa illustrations (later the basis for Coca-Cola’s famous Santa illustrations), as well as creating the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant symbols.
Thus, the national observances of America’s most widely celebrated winter holidays date to the presidencies of two men whose names are more often associated with America’s greatest tragedy, the Civil War. (Yeah, I know Thanksgiving is in autumn, but the string of November-December-January major holidays usually gets lumped together as “winter holidays.”)
If you’d like to know more, see “When Christmas Was Banned in Boston,” by Rebecca Beatrice Brooks, and Time’s “The Surprising Story of Christmas in the United States,” by Olivia B. Waxman.