Christmas is fast upon us, and millions of Americans are eager to see their loved ones, exchange gifts and celebrate the birth of a Savior over 2,000 years ago. The streets will be lit up from the glow of lights on rooftops; nativity scenes will decorate the house and children will take pictures with Santa Claus.
Christmas is so much more than just a celebration. It’s hope and joy—it’s a spirit.
But it is also a trying time for many, particularly those who have lost close family or friends or are enduring hardship. In fact, the birth of Jesus under the cover of darkness was itself fraught with peril, with King Herod in hot pursuit to kill the child and protect his own power. Even in America, Christmas has not always been a time for carefree celebration. Wars both civil and foreign have damped the spirit of the season more than once. We even could say this nation owes its existence to a Yuletide military campaign.
On Christmas Day in 1776, Gen. George Washington led a group of American revolutionaries across the Delaware River to attack the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey. Prior to this battle, morale was running low in the new nation. Defeat after defeat caused the revolutionaries to question whether the American experiment stood a chance. Gen. Washington’s bold Christmas Day decision led to a string of victories that filled Americans with hope.
Without the Christmas Day sacrifice of our revolutionaries, we might not have the American Christmas we cherish today.
Christmas has historically embodied a spirit of unity in American history. Over the generations, national leaders as well as millions of everyday Americans have lived up to spreading « good will toward men » during the holiday season.
In the 1800s, the Christmas we know now began to take shape. Clement Clarke Moore penned the poem now known as « Twas the night before Christmas » in 1823, which introduced the modern Santa Claus and stockings hung above fireplaces across America.
In 1864, during the American Civil War, though battles still raged across the country, the spirit of Christmas prevailed. On Christmas Day, 90 Union soldiers had mules pull sleighs of food and supplies to distribute to civilians in Georgia. The soldiers even tied tree branches to the mules so that they would resemble reindeer.
In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a national holiday. The new official holiday helped to foster a sense of community and unity across the country.
In 1891, on a mission to provide free Christmas meals to those suffering in poverty in San Francisco, Salvation Army Captain Joseph McFee came up with what became the time-old tradition of raising funds with a bright red kettle. Small contributions from individuals like you and me now help the Salvation Army feed more than four million people in the Christmas season.
The first White House Christmas tree appeared in 1889 at the behest of President Benjamin Harrison. It’s a tradition that continues to this day. The tree was placed in the second floor oval room and decorated with candles.
Americans aren’t the only people whose hearts are moved at Christmastime, of course. In 1914, during World War I, Pope Benedict XV requested that the warring nations have a ceasefire on Christmas. While the nations never officially declared such an action, down in the trenches, soldiers decided to demonstrate what peace looked like. The Germans and British started singing Christmas carols, and even some military brass instruments joined in. Then, the Germans made a bold step. They stood up and walked through the warzone with no weapons in hand, calling out « Merry Christmas » in English. The British then climbed out, traded gifts of « cigarettes and plum pudding, » sang carols and even played soccer with their enemies.
In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, the Bible records that after Jesus was born, angels sang « peace on earth to those on whom God’s favor rests. » The history of Christmas in America, and throughout the world, is one of unity, of hope and of joy.
This year, let’s put all the politics aside, and let’s celebrate Christmas. Whether it’s a gift exchanged, a church service or a meal shared together, our nation needs Christmas, now more than ever.
Phil Bryant was governor of Mississippi from 2012 to 2020.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.