(CNN) -- In 1834, Illinois voted whether to adopt Christmas as a legal holiday. Among those voting "nay" was the young Abraham Lincoln.
In 1834, Lincoln had not yet grown out of his atheist phase, but the young Lincoln's lack of faith in God -- and his lifelong disbelief in the divinity of Christ -- does not explain his vote. In 1834, a vote against Christmas was a safe, even a conventional vote.
Not a single state in the Union closed its offices for Christmas on December 25 in 1834. Lincoln marked his first Christmas as President, in December 1861, by holding a Cabinet meeting in the morning and a dinner party in the evening. The Lincoln family never had a White House tree and sent no Christmas cards.
Nobody was much shocked by these omissions.
The public Christmas as Americans know it today did not take form until late in the 19th century. George Washington issued a proclamation on Thanksgiving, but he never made any statement about Christmas (or Easter for that matter). The first state to recognize Christmas as a holiday was Alabama, in 1836, but the North and especially New England resisted. Not until 1856 did Massachusetts accept Christmas as a holiday. The federal government took until 1870 to follow.
There's debate on the point, but it seems that Benjamin Harrison was the first president to allow a Christmas tree inside the White House in 1889.
The tradition of lighting a tree on the White House grounds commenced with Calvin Coolidge in 1923. Dwight Eisenhower sent the first White House Christmas cards. Eisenhower's cards, however, were always determinedly "seasonal." It waited until John F. Kennedy in 1963 to send a card that depicted a nativity scene.
This late flowering of Christmas observance reflects two facts about Christmas that seldom get much attention in our public debates about the "war on Christmas."
In its first century, the national government practiced a separation of church and state far sharper than anything Americans would accept today.
One example: From its founding in 1775, the federal post office delivered mail on Sundays. As evangelical forms of Christianity spread after 1800, the new denominations demanded an end to this desecration of the Sabbath. Some postmasters took it upon themselves to close operations. In response, Congress voted in 1810 to require all postmasters to work at least one hour on Sunday, on pain of losing their positions.
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