Sunday, December 25, 2016
How Christmas Became a Holiday in the U.S.
Although Christmas is not technically a national holiday in the U.S., but it still played an important role in American history
The custom of celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ is not exactly a new one for Christians around the world: the holiday is believed to date back to December. 25, 336 A.D., in Rome. But in the United States, Christmas was not officially a federal day off from work or a break from mail delivery until 1870.
In fact, though the term may be used freely, Christmas isn’t really a “national” holiday in the United States; rather, it is a federal holiday and a holiday in the states. Neither the President nor Congress exercises the power to declare a holiday that would apply to everyone in all of the states at once, the Congressional Research Service points out.
Still, that doesn’t mean the U.S. has historically been unenthusiastic about Christmas. The Puritans banned Christmas celebrations, but by the time the holiday was made a legal one in addition to a religious one, Americans were already a notably Christmas-celebrating group.
Several older, highly industrialized states declared Christmas a legal holiday in the mid-19th century. Massachusetts makes a good case study: With burnout rates skyrocketing during the Industrial Revolution, one state legislator argued that the lack of leisure time was literally killing workers. So, though Massachusetts had had a state-supported church until 1833 and it’s likely that many workers in the predominantly Christian society would have taken the day off anyway, the effort to pass the law came from commercial lobbies rather than religious groups.
“When that legislature declared Christmas to be a legal holiday, they included a proviso that, when Christmas happened to fall on a Sunday, the following Monday would become the legal holiday. They did the same thing with Washington’s Birthday, which had never been a holiday before,” says Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday. “Opposition to the bill focused on the Washington’s Birthday provision, presumably because it was politically easier to attack.”
Finally, on June 28, 1870, towards the end of the legislative session, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into a bill designating Christmas a legal, unpaid holiday for federal employees in the District of Columbia.
President Ulysses S, Grant
The legislation also included holidays like the Fourth of July and New Year’s Day. Such holidays were later extended to federal employees outside of D.C., but a provision making sure they got paid on those days didn’t exist until 1938. According to Congressional records, the 1870 law was instigated by area “bankers and business men” who wanted certain holidays to be formalized. Though it might have stood to reason that such a bill might provoke debate about hot-button issues like the separation of church and state, there was no notable debate on the bill in committee. ( says .)
While a day off from work was important, that wasn’t the only purpose of Christmas during that rapidly changing time. Christmas customs encouraged a sense of community and unity at a time when urbanization, industrialization and the memory of the recent Civil War had made many people feel more unsettled than ever, says Restad. Unsurprisingly, Thanksgiving’s place as a federal holiday dates to the same era. During that time, people across the nation sought to impose order on a confusing world, from time zones to department stores. One result of that effort was an expanding sense of what America meant.“This idea of creating a nation becomes important,” Restad says. And. Christmas was part of how the nation came to be.
Other Christmas Images by Thomas Nast