In 1870, President Grant signed a law making Christmas Day a federal holiday, a national day of celebration. Congress overwhelmingly voted to make that happen and Grant understood that this was not a trivial gesture. The nation remained deeply divided in the aftermath of the Civil War and the federal government was looking for ways to reunite the people. Since Christmas was loved by almost everyone, the national holiday became a symbol of healing and unity.
Now, America is divided again, this time over social behavior. Traditional Americans want to hold on to the beliefs and institutions that they believe have made the country great, while secular-progressives lobby for aggressive change. Deep divisions are growing in America and, somewhat shockingly, Christmas is right in the middle of it.
Nearly a decade ago some retail companies ordered their employees not to say the words "Merry Christmas" because they might offend people who do not celebrate the national holiday. Of course, that was insane. These companies were marketing the gift-giving season that accompanies Christmas but were refusing to utter the word? Please.
After an exposition of this by me and some other media people, millions of Americans decided not to spend money in the offending quarters, and the banishment of "Merry Christmas" quickly ceased. I guess money trumps offending people all day long.
This year there were a few more Christmas controversies that we confronted immediately. The sports network ESPN refused to air an ad for the Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center in St. Louis. Why? Because the spot mentioned "the birth of Jesus" and referred to "God's healing presence?" Are you kidding? Do the good folks at ESPN think Christmas got its name from basketball player Christian Laettner? Or maybe soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo? When we reported ESPN's snub, the network quickly issued a statement saying it would run the ad after all. Good for them.
But some other assaults on Christmas aren't so easily beaten back. In a remarkable display of meanness that is the antithesis of the Christmas spirit, a group called American Atheists paid big bucks to put up a billboard in New York City. "Who Needs Christ During Christmas?" the sign asks. And the answer: "Nobody!" Why go out of your way to insult the 75% of Americans who identify themselves as Christians? During an appearance on The Factor, the group's public relations director, Dave Muscato, explained it this way: "Jesus has been dead for a really long time, you don't need him." Thanks, Dave, but I'll decide for myself whether or not I need Jesus in my life. And by the way, you might benefit from reading a few of Jesus' teachings about kindness toward your fellow man.
Then there's the city of Tallahassee Florida, which put up a Nativity scene depicting the birth of Jesus. That greatly offended a guy named Chaz Stevens, who insisted that he be allowed to erect a "Festivus" pole alongside the manger. As "Seinfeld" aficionados know, Festivus is a fictitious "holiday" invented by a particularly dysfunctional character. So the birth of a man many consider the Son of God is now juxtaposed with a pole celebrating a phony "holiday!" Insulted yet? Well, just wait until next year when the atheists figure out some new ways to demean and insult millions of believers.
According to Jon Stewart, the "war on Christmas" is a figment of my imagination. And even my pal Bernie Goldberg chastised me on the air, wondering why I "get so worked up over this." If the examples cited above aren't enough to convince Stewart and Goldberg, there are plenty more outrages across America every December.
The atheists and secularists feel some bizarre compulsion to attack the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the Wise Men and whoever else dropped by the Bethlehem birthplace.
Atheists well understand that Christmas is the most visible display of religion in the world, and that any diminishment of it is a good thing to militant secularists. But it is inconceivable that Ulysses S. Grant, believing he finally had a perfect issue with which to unite a fractured country, could have foreseen the social civil war we have today.
Sadly, we are no longer one nation under God. But those of us who truly understand the spirit of Christmas - the simple message of good will toward all men - understand that Ulysses S. Grant was on to something. Christmas should be a time of peace and understanding. It's sad that we now have to defend that.