Signed, sealed, secular

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."

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.


Not even the ascension of the religious right during Ronald Reagan’s administration upset the careful balance of Christmas cards designed not to exclude or offend. Reflecting not so much the increased power of the Christian right as the broader culture’s commitment to pluralism, the missives now bore messages studded with such phrases as “With special holiday wishes” or “With warmest wishes for the holidays” -- a card no one would worry about sending to a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu or an atheist. Of course, some years the White House cards did make more explicit references to Christmas, and in his official Christmas Day statements, Reagan spoke of “the Christ child” and otherwise got religious. But Bill Clinton and George W. Bush -- both of whom, tellingly, grew up in the postwar years of “Protestant-Catholic-Jew”-style pluralism -- made general reference to the season’s multiple holidays in their cards, though Bush’s cards also included some biblical verses.

Nonetheless, during Bush’s presidency Fox News began to promote the bizarre idea that there was a “war on Christmas” afoot in America. Right-wing warriors suddenly began objecting to long-used phrases such as “happy holidays.” Even the overtly Christian Bush was deemed insufficiently religious. Midway into his presidency, religious conservatives began attacking him for sending out a generic holiday message instead of a Christmas-specific one. “This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture,” said William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

With 37 Christmas trees in the public rooms of the White House this year, the holiday’s observance in Washington seems quite secure. But the spirit of inclusion is safe as well. According to historian Jonathan Sarna, President Carter was the first president to light a menorah (in Lafayette Park); President Clinton brought the Hanukkah ceremony into the White House; and George W. Bush expanded it into a full-fledged party -- and the Obamas have continued the practice. As yet, however, there are no White House Hanukkah cards.

And this year’s Christmas card? It harks all the way back to Calvin Coolidge, not to Christmas angels: The first dog, Bo, is featured, irreligiously but inoffensively, lying down by a roaring fireplace.