On June 26, 1870 the Congress of the United States declared Christmas — widely recognized then and now as a Christian observance — a national holiday. This weekend marks the 140th anniversary of that declaration.
Christmas in America has always been controversial. Pilgrims arriving on America’s shores didn’t want to observe Christmas due to their conviction that the holiday was tied to more pagan practices than holy observance. They opted instead to honor a day of thanksgiving. Christmas in American history had been noted leading up to and beyond the era of the Revolutionary War — it just didn’t hold widespread signifigance until masses of immigrants from other cultures began to populate her shores.
Traditions of Christmas observance — from Christmas trees to visits by St. Nicholas — were of foreign origin that were popularized through cultural works by Washington Irving, Clement C. Moore and Charles Dickens. Christmas cards became fashionable in the 1840s and Christmas trees started as a tradition in the mid-19th century. Santa Claus made his first public appearances in Philadelphia as early as 1860. All of these elements combined to bring Christmas — viewed then more for its secular popularity than its religious meaning — to the attention of Congress in 1870.
In 1999, a federal court acknowledged the secular aspects of Christmas in rejecting a claim that the holiday impermissibly endorsed and furthered a particular religious belief.
In 2010, it is expected that the modern-media phenomenon known as “the War on Christmas” will inflame as the courts address the recent banning of the “National Day of Prayer” by a federal court as a sign that perhaps Christmas as a declared national holiday might again come under fire.