There’s always debate around Christmas. One topic is church’s intrusion upon state. People scan the details of the lighting of the National Christmas Tree for symbols of “Christmas” rather than “holiday.” There’s controversy over the White House Christmas card as well. President Obama’s first card, in 2009, for example, read “Season’s Greetings,” not “Merry Christmas,” a fact that so irritated Representative Henry Brown (R., S.C.) that he introduced a resolution defending the sacredness of Christmas: “I believe that sending a Christmas card without referencing a holiday and its purpose limits the Christmas celebration in favor of a more politically correct holiday.”
Another Christmas topic, however, is the material bounty of the holiday. The Los Angeles Times, for example, recently reprinted a defensive column by Dinah Lenney, a Jewish writer and actress. Lenney, married to a non-Jew, portrays Christmas as an American force so darling and powerful it overwhelmed her family. Failing to buy wreaths, erect a tree, or leave a carrot for Rudolph forced her into the role of the Grinch. So Lenney, clearly a caring mother, bought a tree and gave her children a chance to celebrate Christmas. But she herself chose not to celebrate, to remain the “bristly, conflicted, slightly sheepish American Jew that I am.” Such arguments are usually framed as “Christmas versus the Rest.”
The questions of Christmas and state, and of its bounty, were actually addressed by the president who inaugurated both the outdoor-tree tradition and the presidential Christmas message: Calvin Coolidge. Our 30th president, who served from 1923 to 1929, loved Christmas. But he loved it carefully. The president’s actions in regard to the holiday reflect insights that shine like the Christmas candles — but also like Hanukkah lights.
In the autumn of 1923, the new president and other Washingtonians had a new idea: an outdoor White House Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve, Coolidge and his wife Grace walked over to the Ellipse. There a magnificent 48-foot fir awaited them, decorated with 2,500 green, red, and white bulbs donated by the Electric League. Coolidge pressed a button that lit up the tree, yielding a sort of fireworks effect that Americans love to this day.
It is unlikely that either the president or the first lady initially saw the Christmas tree as a tree of the national government. It was to the District of Columbia Public Schools that Grace Coolidge gave permission to erect the Christmas tree in the autumn of 1923. As the planning proceeded, people referred to the tree as a “community Christmas tree.” The tree’s provenance also mattered: The fir came not from a “national” place but from a place associated with Coolidge’s home state, Vermont — the forests around Middlebury College.
Even in that first year, some stakeholders in the tree project liked the idea of going national, marketing the tree as a “National Christmas Tree.” But someone, probably the White House, pushed back. The label given the tree the following year represented a compromise: “National Community Christmas Tree.” In 1927 newspapers were still labeling the tree “the Washington community tree.” The element of locality abided, even through the years of the activist Franklin Roosevelt: In 1942, for example, Washington schoolchildren took the lead in decorating the tree, collecting ornaments around the region.
What was going on? Coolidge was such a ferocious federalist that he spoke of the United States in plural. The point here was simple: The United States had no national faith, and Washington was not all-powerful. He, a Christian from Vermont, was a guest in a largely Christian place, the District of Columbia. It was important for local authorities to keep Washington out of their realm. Coolidge restrained the federal government not because he was an early presidential iteration of Ayn Rand but because he feared state would intrude upon church. Protecting churches, or states’ rights, or town government, was what low-tax, small-government politicians like him restrained government for.
Eventually the small-government types lost their Christmas-tree battle. The lighting of the White House tree is today rated a “national” or “federal” event, as per the beginning of this story. For fans there is even a website, nationaltree.org. But Coolidge’s point is still there in the record for us to consider if we choose.
Coolidge’s philosophy was likewise evident in the presidential Christmas card. In 1927 the president wrote out a personal Yuletide letter to the nation, the first such greeting. His message was one of charity and good will. “If we think on these things, there will be born in us a Savior and over us will shine a star sending its gleam of hope throughout the world.”
Some will clearly deem such a phrase “too Christian.” They will not, however, be considering the rest of the presidential message. Coolidge meticulously placed his Christian imagery of star and savior in an ecumenical frame. “Christmas is not a time or season but a state of mind,” he wrote. “To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” Elsewhere, when speaking of faith, Coolidge departed from Christianity altogether, speaking of “the spiritual insight of people.” “The things of spirit come first,” Coolidge wrote. “Unless we cling to that all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp.” The government was built on faith, and not the other way around.
What Coolidge understood was that the absence of faith can create a vacuum. Into that vacuum fly the trappings of holidays — the material gifts that parents like the author in the Los Angeles Times find it impossible not to supply. To Coolidge’s mind, this could lead to “pagan materialism.” When you shared a faith, it was not the trappings that mattered, but the faith itself.
In other words, the true contest is not “Church versus State,” “Christmas versus the Rest,” or even “Christians versus the Rest.” The tension can be found between people who respect (or try to respect) “things of the spirit” —i.e., faith — and those who do not. You can stand for secular humanism on principle, and many admirable souls do. But it is important to recognize that secular humanism rules at a cost, that materialism does not have all the answers, and that faith is not always dangerous. Indeed, faith can protect individual freedom and selflessness in a way that has nothing to do with Santa, dreidels, or Christmas-tree ornaments.
— Amity Shlaes chairs the board of the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Foundation and serves as presidential scholar at King’s College.