The evolution of the Christian religious holiday of Jesus’ birth into a secular global holiday that embraces all religions, cultures and traditions is a unique example of the emergence of a global culture. Yet, today, the planet’s first global holiday is under siege from all sides and may not long endure.
The Need for a Unifying Secular Holiday
Compared to Spain, England, France, and Russia, the newly established United States of America in the late 18th century had no history, no national language, no national religions, no national identity, and no national culture.
Washington Irving, of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” fame, recognized the potential of the holiday as a force capable of uniting the northern and southern colonies, old family Knickerbockers and new Irish and German immigrants, upper and lower social classes, and rich and poor. He described how the celebration of Christmas in England bridged class and wealth and contributed to a stable and happy country. He stressed the holiday as one that not only transcended all social classes and could unite all New Yorkers and Americans, but transcended all religions as well.
Yet, as late as 1855, the growing Christmas holiday was still shunned by many churches as a pagan festival.
Nonetheless, during the Civil War, Christmas emerged as a secular symbol of American nationalism. In 1870, Congress declared Christmas a holiday for federal employees in Washington, DC, and in 1885 extended the holiday to all federal employees.