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Christmas Was Not a National Holiday Until 1870 When Finally Declared by President U.S. Grant

We take Christmas as a public holiday for granted, even in our increasingly multi-religious and non-religious world. In a year of degraded public discourse, the story behind its legal place in our calendar can shine a light on an American leader who offered as his presidential campaign slogan: “Let us have peace.” President Ulysses S. Grant signed a proclamation making Christmas a national holiday on June 24, 1870.

The story behind his signing is filled with paradox.

The Pilgrims who first came to a new England did not celebrate Christmas. Their memories of Christmas in the old England they left behind were of a season of decadence and debauchery. Nearly two centuries later, in the first year of the new United States, Congress met in session on December 25, 1789 — certainly not a holiday.

In the early decades of the 19th century Americans began to reimagine Christmas, turning it into church- and family-centered celebrations. Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. Carol singing, tree decorations and gift-giving became regular parts of Christmas. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast, a German immigrant, popularized a jolly Santa Claus in his drawings.

During the Civil War, Christmas meant a day of rest as well as memories of festivities back home. Robert Gould Shaw, who would receive fame as commander of the 54th Massachusetts, the first African-American regiment organized in the North, wrote, “It is Christmas morning and I hope for a happy and merry one for you all.”

Grant, victorious Union Civil War general, emerged from the war with a passion to reunite the nation. If he had become a practitioner of a “hard war” during the four-year-long conflict, as the war reached its climax he grew into an advocate of a “soft peace.” He demonstrated his belief at the Confederate surrender at Appomattox when he offered Robert E. Lee a magnanimous peace.

Grant’s decision to declare Christmas a legal public holiday reveals two sides of this self-effacing American leader. First, although he is not portrayed as a religious person in biographies, a closer look will reveal a quiet man who did not wear his faith on his sleeve, but displayed his Methodist commitment to social justice.

Nova Homes of South Florida wishes everyone a joyous, peaceful, and hopeful Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday season. Nova Homes is building custom homes in Naples, Marco Island, and Golden Gate Estates, Florida. For more information call 239.307.6116 or visit


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