Skip to main content

The 'war on Christmas': Did Lincoln start it?

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
December 23, 2013 -- Updated 2111 GMT (0511 HKT)
<strong>"A Joyful Obsession," Printemps, Paris:</strong> For more than a century, department stores have been creating fantastic window displays around the Christmas holidays. This year's highlights include 80 teddy bears that prance in the windows of French department store Printemps. Each of the bears wears miniature Prada. Gwyneth Paltrow unveiled these windows with much fanfare in November. "A Joyful Obsession," Printemps, Paris: For more than a century, department stores have been creating fantastic window displays around the Christmas holidays. This year's highlights include 80 teddy bears that prance in the windows of French department store Printemps. Each of the bears wears miniature Prada. Gwyneth Paltrow unveiled these windows with much fanfare in November.
HIDE CAPTION
Fabulous Christmas store windows
Fabulous Christmas store windows
Fabulous Christmas store windows
Fabulous Christmas store windows
Fabulous Christmas store windows
Fabulous Christmas store windows
Fabulous Christmas store windows
Fabulous Christmas store windows
Fabulous Christmas store windows
Fabulous Christmas store windows
Fabulous Christmas store windows
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Lincoln, like many in 1834, didn't observe Christmas as an official holiday
  • He says in late 19th century, Americans began to observe Christmas as a public holiday
  • Early Americans kept a sharp separation of church and state, Frum says
  • Frum: "War on Christmas" flap a reaction to a perceived threat to folkway, not religion

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- In 1834, Illinois voted whether to adopt Christmas as a legal holiday. Among those voting "nay" was the young Abraham Lincoln.

In 1834, Lincoln had not yet grown out of his atheist phase, but the young Lincoln's lack of faith in God -- and his lifelong disbelief in the divinity of Christ -- does not explain his vote. In 1834, a vote against Christmas was a safe, even a conventional vote.

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.

Nobody was much shocked by these omissions.

The public Christmas as Americans know it today did not take form until late in the 19th century. George Washington issued a proclamation on Thanksgiving, but he never made any statement about Christmas (or Easter for that matter). The first state to recognize Christmas as a holiday was Alabama, in 1836, but the North and especially New England resisted. Not until 1856 did Massachusetts accept Christmas as a holiday. The federal government took until 1870 to follow.

David Frum
David Frum

There's debate on the point, but it seems that Benjamin Harrison was the first president to allow a Christmas tree inside the White House in 1889.

The tradition of lighting a tree on the White House grounds commenced with Calvin Coolidge in 1923. Dwight Eisenhower sent the first White House Christmas cards. Eisenhower's cards, however, were always determinedly "seasonal." It waited until John F. Kennedy in 1963 to send a card that depicted a nativity scene.

This late flowering of Christmas observance reflects two facts about Christmas that seldom get much attention in our public debates about the "war on Christmas."

In its first century, the national government practiced a separation of church and state far sharper than anything Americans would accept today.

One example: From its founding in 1775, the federal post office delivered mail on Sundays. As evangelical forms of Christianity spread after 1800, the new denominations demanded an end to this desecration of the Sabbath. Some postmasters took it upon themselves to close operations. In response, Congress voted in 1810 to require all postmasters to work at least one hour on Sunday, on pain of losing their positions.

See Christmas display with 350K lights
'Awkward' photos find new life online
10,000 carolers respond to girl's wish

The Americans of the founding generations insisted upon separation of church and state not because they were irreligious, but precisely because so many of them were so very intensely religious. Because religion mattered so much to early Americans, so did religious differences.

Calvinists and Baptists, Methodists and Catholics, the grandest Boston rector and the rawest frontier preacher disagreed, sometimes to the point of outright violence. Anti-Catholic riots ripped apart Boston, Philadelphia and Bath, Maine, between the 1830s and 1850s.

These contending denominations could, however, agree at least that they did not want a remote government in Washington favoring some religious practices over others. Better to deliver the mail on Sunday than debate who was right about the Sabbath. Better to issue no religious proclamations than let presidents pick and choose which holy days to mark and how to mark them.

A second fact also explains the coolness of the early national government to Christianity: the keen awareness of many 19th century Christians of the non-Christian origins of many Christmas traditions.

Christmas is celebrated near the date of the old Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Gift-giving on the day was also a Roman tradition. The Christmas tree, the hanging of wreaths and house-to-house caroling hark back to the pre-Christian German holiday of Yule.

Calvinists had abandoned their outright ban on Christmas observance on the late 17th century. But many Protestant denominations retained a lingering suspicion of the holiday until deep into the 19th century.

Two changes made possible the coalescing of an official Christmas holiday over the 40 years from Calvin Coolidge's outdoor Christmas tree to John F. Kennedy's sacral Christmas card: The fading of distinctions between Christians and the decline of theology within Christianity.

The once all-crucial distinctions between Calvinists and Arminians (whose beliefs came from Dutch reformist Jacobus Arminius) and between even Protestants and Catholics have blurred. The once-vivid mistrust of trees and tinsel and burning logs has vanished, as American Christianity evolved away from a creed in which people believed and into a set of practices that people did. If Christians decorate trees, then tree decorating must be Christian -- no matter how or why the custom started and what the custom meant to the people who started it.

Devout Christian believers can still be counted in the millions of course. Surrounding them, however, is a larger and more nebulous group for whom what was once a faith has become a folkway. For them, a Christmas tree or a nativity scene is less a declaration of individual belief than it is an expression of group identity.

Many Americans feel this group identity to be under threat by changes in recent years.

When they champion "Christmas as it was," they do not mean "Christmas as it was for George Washington or Abraham Lincoln" and much less "Christmas as it was for Martin Luther or Jonathan Edwards." They mean, "Christmas as it was when I was young."

That is why we have eruptions such as last week's flap over the whiteness of Santa Claus. If your Christmas celebrates the appearance of God Himself in the form of a human baby, it won't have a lot of room for a gift-giving elf and flying reindeer. But if Santa is at most tangential to the Christmas of faith, he is utterly central to the Christmas of folkway.

It is the Christmas of folkway that is the Christmas so passionately defended by those who talk about "the war on Christmas."

The Christmas of Santa and Rudolph, and trees and stockings, and candy canes and "Merry Christmas" greetings began to be most publicly celebrated in the United States only after -- and only because -- the religious impetus for the holiday had already dwindled away.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT