Last November, Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee, a moderate Republican turned independent, sent out invitations to the state’s annual tree lighting ceremony and referred to the central symbol as a “holiday tree.” As is typical with such cases, a firestorm of criticism erupted. Opponents insisted it be called a Christmas tree, complaining that any alternate label was political correctness run amok. Just the preceding January, Doreen Costa, a freshman Republican legislator, had sponsored a state resolution that the tree be known as a Christmas tree and not a holiday tree (it passed in the House). When, months later, Chafee ignored the non-binding resolution, Costa called the governor a Grinch and said that he was “as far left as you can possibly be.” Religious leaders weighed in, Fox News devoted considerable airtime to the controversy, and phone calls and emails poured into the governor’s office.
Though his critics argued the governor was ignoring American traditions, Chafee invoked the 1663 Colonial charter and the legacy of state father Roger Williams, the Baptist dissident noted for his advocacy of church-state separation. “I just want to make sure I’m doing everything possible in this building to honor Roger Williams,” Chafee said.
On December 6, 2011, Jon Stewart addressed the controversy in a segment titled “The Tree Fighting Ceremony” on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. In his typically humorous way, Stewart teased about inconsistencies in the critics’ arguments. He noted the Puritans were opposed to Christmas, and he pointed out that, in early America, Congress stayed open on Christmas Day, suggesting modern Americans have exaggerated the day’s importance. Stewart joked, “When the country was founded, Congress had exactly the same attitude about the sanctity of Christmas celebrations that a 7-Eleven does today: ‘Yeah, we’re open.’”
It was a pithy rebuttal to those who might charge that there is a “war on Christmas” in modern America. To cite history and show the lowly place Christmas Day held in the eyes of our founders was savvy. But was it true? Stewart’s claims drew the interest of PolitiFact, an online fact-checking project. Gene Emery, a reporter for Rhode Island’s Providence Journal, a PolitiFact affiliate, became especially interested in whether Congress met on Christmas Day. Stewart had used a video clip from the History Channel, which stated, “On Dec. 25, 1789, the United States Congress sat in session and continued to stay open on Christmas Day for most of the next 67 years.” As Emery wrote, “We were intrigued by the idea that members of Congress in the early days would be on the job most Christmas Days, even if Dec. 25 fell on a weekend. So we started digging.”
This is where I come into the fray. Emery found a statement on the History Channel’s website almost identical to the wording quoted in the History Channel segment Stewart used. Through a Google search, Emery also discovered the American Civil Liberties Union had cited similar points on their website: “Congress met on Christmas Day every year from 1789 to 1855, with only three exceptions.” And what did the ACLU cite as the source for that quotation? An article by someone named Bruce David Forbes (that’s me), published in 2007 in the journal Word and World, edited at Luther Seminary.
Emery also contacted Donald Richie, a Senate historian, who said he “had his doubts” about Congress meeting on Christmas Day. Emery then turned to government records and found that one claim was clearly wrong; in 1789 Congress did not gather in chambers on December 25. The records also showed that, between 1789 and 1857, Congress declared a formal recess that extended over Christmas Day in only three years. In all the other years Congress was officially “in session” during Christmas, but that did not mean they met in the chambers specifically on December 25. In the years from 1789 to 1857, the records indicated that the House actually met on Christmas Day only once, in 1797, and the Senate met on Christmas Day only once, in 1802.
At PolitiFact, Gene Emery concluded “the assertion that Congress met virtually every Christmas during that period is completely False.” To Stewart, the ACLU, and the History Channel, he gave “a collective Pants on Fire!”—the site’s phrase for a statement that is “not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.”
This little flurry of investigation left me both chagrined and curious. As a scholar, had I contributed to distributing misleading historical information? I wanted to double-check my own sources and determine for myself whether Congress met on Christmas Day until the 1850s.
First, I wanted to go further than Emery did in backtracking the claim. He apparently was unaware that my Word and World article is mainly a distillation of my 2008 book, Christmas: A Candid History. Following my own footnotes, my major source on this point was Tom Flynn’s book, The Trouble with Christmas, published in 1993. There I found language virtually identical to the claims made by the History Channel, including a reference to the year 1789 that I did not include in my book. In a phone conversation with a producer from the History Channel, I learned that they had interviewed Flynn for their television special. So, he was the major source for me and perhaps for the History Channel, but what was his source for the claim? Through personal email contacts and footnotes, I learned that Flynn relied in part on information Al Menendez included in his book, December Wars (1993), and in turn Menendez relied in part on Alvin Rosenbaum’s A White House Christmas (1992), with slight variations in each source. I am still seeking earlier claims.
After my additional research, I believe that much of the confusion arises from the words “sit” and “in session,” which may seem synonymous but technically are not. From 1789 to 1857, except for three years, Congress was in session during Christmas Day, but it almost always did not sit (i.e., actually meet in chambers) on Christmas Day. Congress did not start regularly calling a formal recess over the Christmas holiday until the late 1850s. A comparison can be made to today’s Congress: the legislature does not usually meet on Sundays, but a recess is not called every weekend. On Sundays, the House and Senate may still be in session, but they do not necessarily meet in chambers. Note that the History Channel’s statement says that Congress “sat in session” in 1789; the combination of “sat” and “in session” prompts the confusion, because Congress might be “in session” but not actually “sit” (i.e. meet) on a particular day.
So, did Congress actually meet in chambers on Christmas Day in their early years? No, almost never. Any imprecise statements by historians that suggest it, unfortunately including mine, are incorrect.
However, was Christmas “in session” on Christmas Day throughout its early years? Yes, almost always, because Congress did not begin regularly declaring a recess for the Christmas holiday period until the 1850s.
Thus, in my book and article, it was inaccurate to say that Congress met on Christmas Day from 1780 to 1855. If I had replaced the word “met” with “was in session,” the statement would have been more accurate.
But to the larger point, was Christmas downplayed in early America? Compared to today, yes. Jon Stewart was right that Puritans in the 1600s disapproved of Christmas. They believed that the earliest Christians did not observe the birth of Jesus, that Christmas was one of many Roman Catholic innovations that should be purged, and that Christmas festivals had become too wild and licentious. But Puritan legal efforts to suppress Christmas were only partially successful. In the American colonies, Christians were divided over the holiday. Most dissenters from the Church of England—including Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers—had been influenced by the Puritan disapproval; they tended to oppose, ignore, or de-emphasize Christmas. Meanwhile, those still within the Church of England, as well German and Scandinavian Lutherans, the Dutch Reformed, and Catholics, celebrated Christmas more fully. There was no national consensus about the importance of Christmas in early America. Celebrations happened, but the entire culture did not stop for December 25. Businesses often remained open and many government functions continued. It was not until the mid-1800s that Christmas became a more pervasive national celebration, not especially because of the influence of churches, but through a myriad of cultural influences, from Dickens’ Christmas Carol to the rise of Santa Claus.
Christmas was not always a holiday that virtually all Americans cherished. It grew to be that way, and not always for religious reasons. As Tom Flynn wrote to me, learning that Congress did not actually sit on Christmas Day in most of the early years is a significant detail, “but the larger message remains intact; the Christmas holiday was treated much less seriously in the Republic’s early years.” Since the late 1850s, Congress customarily has declared a formal recess for the Christmas holiday, which in part is an indication of a major cultural shift. Today almost everything in the United States seems to stop on Christmas Day. It was not always that way.
Bruce David Forbes is a Professor of Religious Studies at Morningside College. He is the author of Christmas: A Candid History.