Published on December 25, 2021
There is something special about the Christmas season. Even Americans who identify with other faiths or no faith at all love celebrating this holiday with their friends and loved ones.
Christmas music plays everywhere, carols and concerts are performed by school groups and symphonies, and streets are decorated with Christmas lights. People of all backgrounds celebrate themes of peace and goodwill.
But Christmas Day in America, at least since 1870, has always been both a Christian observance and a secular, public holiday. That year, President Ulysses S. Grant established four federal public holidays that continue to be celebrated today: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and the Fourth of July.
Grant believed that these four holidays would bring unity to a fractured land. The president is best known for leading the Union armies to victory during the Civil War. Grant chose as his presidential campaign slogan the phrase, “Let us have peace,” and sought ways to bind the wounds between the North and the South. In selecting Christmas as a federal public holiday, Grant wasn’t only trying to promote unity among Christians — but among all Americans.
This might all seem like dry history, but it is important to understand why Grant established Christmas as a federal holiday and why holidays matter now. All too often, culture views them as just another day off and never looks beneath the surface.
Holidays matter because they declare something unique and special about who we are as a country. We honor certain days that celebrate important events and bond us together. We close the stock market, banks, stores, and offices. For at least that one day, even the GDP and the economy are secondary to pausing and celebrating something significant — something that unites us as Americans.
Many people forget that Christmas, like any other holiday, united the country in a common celebration of shared values.
At an obvious level, on Christmas, Americans gather together, we send holiday cards, attend school performances with our children, give gifts to friends and family, and care for the less fortunate. Christmas is a season of generosity.
The core Christmas themes of hope, peace, and goodwill, while biblical in origin, are universal and serve to bring people from all faiths together. When we say, “Merry Christmas,” we express our best wishes to others in a spirit of gratitude, commemorating the coming of the savior sent for us.
Yet, publicly celebrating Christmas transcends simply best wishes. It acknowledges the very idea and ideals of America.
Our Declaration of Independence made a unique claim: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Despite what some claim today, our country was not founded on the idea of power or patriarchy or oppression or the sword. It was founded on a noble idea — that the human person is the gift of a creator God and endowed with unbreakable rights.
It is said that America is a “Judeo-Christian nation” not because everyone is Jewish or Christian, but because our founding principles were grounded in the Judeo-Christian proposition, namely that our dignity and our rights do not come from government but from a creator — the same God that came to us in a manger in Bethlehem.
These universal principles and beliefs about the human person, the source of our rights, and the bonds that unite us make the idea of a free country possible. America proudly affirms that you don’t have to be Christian or practice any particular faith to be an American, but it acknowledges that without God, our claims about freedom, and our rights, mean nothing.
Grant hoped to unify the country by recognizing Christmas as a national day of prayer and celebration. Christmas indeed is a glorious feast that commemorates Christ’s birth, but its celebration as a public holiday likewise reminds us of our identity as a nation.
It’s why on Christmas morning, the streets are quiet. Our churches are open, but the government is closed. On Christmas Day, we together with the herald angels sing, not glory to the president, but to the newborn king.
Mary FioRito writes for EDIFY, the Ethics & Public Policy Center, and the deNicola Center for Ethics & Culture.