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Signed, sealed, secular

Should the first couple be issuing messages to mark a religious holiday not all Americans celebrate?

December 18, 2011|David Greenberg | David Greenberg is associate professor of history and of journalism and media studies at Rutgers University and the author of several works of political history, including "Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image."
  • An example of the White House Christmas Card is on display in the East Garden Room.
An example of the White House Christmas Card is on display in the East Garden… (Chip Somodevilla/Getty…)

We Americans pride ourselves on our religious pluralism and toleration. Although presidents do feel obliged to end every speech with the title of an Irving Berlin song ("God Bless America"), by and large they adhere to the Founding Fathers' ideal of separation of church and state. But contrary to this general rule there each year arises the exceptional custom of White House Christmas cards.

Should the president and first lady really be issuing messages to celebrate a religious holiday that not all Americans celebrate? Strictly speaking, probably not, even if the costs are picked up by the political parties. Yet the practice has never incurred the wrath of the American Civil Liberties Union. That's probably because, since the beginning, these messages have usually taken on an inclusive, if not bland, character -- one that manages to respect the holiday season and simultaneously to give scant offense.

According to Mary Evans Seeley's "Season's Greetings from the White House, " the key work on White House Christmas celebrations, presidential holiday messages originated with Calvin Coolidge. In 1923, Coolidge's first winter in office, Middlebury College, in his home state of Vermont, donated a 60-foot fir tree that was installed on the Ellipse, south of the Treasury Building, and illuminated in a public ceremony. In subsequent years, Coolidge -- an unsung pioneer in the use of radio and mass media -- became not only the first president to light a Christmas tree in public but also the first one to deliver a Christmas message over the radio and the first to issue a written statement, which many newspapers across the country reprinted.

Although issued on a Christian holiday, Coolidge's statement was, notably, mainly secular in nature. The 1920s witnessed cultural wars as fierce as those that have racked the country since the 1960s -- over immigration (even then), Prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan -- and Coolidge, though a conservative Republican who was a pious Christian in private, sought to maintain an ecumenical tone. Although the vague reference to "a Savior" gave his message a mild Christian cast, what the president called for was not any specific religious belief but "a state of mind" that cherished "peace and goodwill."

Once inaugurated, the tradition of a seasonal message from the president could not be easily abandoned. Herbert Hoover continued the tree-lighting ceremony, at which he spoke, and he and First Lady Lou Henry Hoover began sending Christmas notes to the White House staff. Largely anodyne in character, their first one included a picture of the South Portico of the Executive Mansion. Subsequent cards were slightly more adventurous, showing the president in the Rose Garden and the White House dogs, Weegie and Pat. After Hoover's departure, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first president to issue what we would recognize as cards rather than photographs or personal letters.

By the 1950s, the age in which Jews became fully (or almost fully) assimilated into American public life, Dwight Eisenhower was using phrases like "Season's Greetings" on the White House cards and wishing his correspondents a "fine holiday season." These gestures reflected the cultural consensus that, as the famously inarticulate Eisenhower said, "Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith -- and I don't care what it is."

In his 1955 classic, "Protestant-Catholic-Jew," the sociologist Will Herberg explained, "One's particular religion is, of course, to be cherished and loyally adhered to, but it is not felt to be something that one 'flaunts' in the face of people of other faiths." Fittingly, Eisenhower sometimes decorated his Christmas cards with his own amateur artwork -- he loved to paint landscapes while watching TV -- depicting gentle, pleasing vistas such as that of Mt. Eisenhower, a rugged butte in the Canadian Rockies surrounded by fir trees.

The secular consensus continued into the 1960s and '70s, although Jackie Kennedy did once prepare (but never sent) a card featuring a nativity scene. More typical of the era, however, were paintings of the White House interiors that the first lady had refurbished. The Kennedys also experimented with sending separate cards to Jewish and other non-Christian supporters that placed the focus of the message on the upcoming new year instead of on Christmas.

Richard Nixon was partial to showcasing former presidents, putting on his cards Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and, significantly, the great champion of church-state separation, Thomas Jefferson. He also greatly expanded the list of recipients, sending the cards to political donors instead of just White House staff and an inner circle.

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