Source: The Atlantic
Christmas, though, has long been beleaguered as a religious holiday. The Puritans found it such a mix of bacchanalian paganism and Catholic ritualism that they tried to erase it entirely from the Protestant calendar. One of the most effective evangelists of the early republic, the Methodist Francis Asbury, simply despaired of redeeming the holiday’s drunken excess: “Christmas day,” he lamented in 1805, “is the worst in the whole year on which to preach Christ.” No wonder that most 19th-century liberals and freethinkers did not worry very much about the need to secularize Christmas: The holiday season belonged to them at least as much as to churchgoers, what with the street revelry, the store-window Santas, the mistletoe, the feasting, the shopping and gift-giving.
The debate over what tone presidents should set with their Thanksgiving proclamations was as old as the nation itself. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had famously split over the issuing of such civic religious pronouncements during their presidencies (Adams assented; Jefferson refused). But the conflict escalated during and after the Civil War, as the holiday was promoted as a national rite of reconciliation and patriotic concord. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln had proclaimed the first national Thanksgiving in language replete with religious allusion, imagining the Union under the “the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God” and imploring “the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation.”
Freethinkers and secularists—a small but vocal and vigilant minority—watched with disappointment as American presidents thereafter made an annual routine of such exhortations, effectively fusing Thanksgiving with the politics of religious nationalism. “The American people,” President Grover Cleveland typically intoned in 1885, “have always abundant cause to be thankful to Almighty God, whose watchful care and guiding hand have been manifested in every stage of their national life.” He encouraged all citizens to assemble in their respective houses of worship for prayers and hymns in order to give thanks to the Lord for the nation’s innumerable bounties.