By Barry Piatt
The writer has had a front row seat for state and national government and politics for over 50 years, working first as a political reporter in Iowa, and later as a senior adviser for members of the U.S. House and Senate and candidates for president. This column was originally published by Barry Piatt on Politics: Behind the Curtain. It is republished here via the Iowa Writers’ Collaborative.
You’ve seen the memes on social media and heard the loud complaints, usually coming from the same partisans. It even showed up on “Saturday Night Live”’s cold open this past weekend — the tired, old, and false claim that “they,” whoever “they” are, but the implication is always that it’s the “libs” and Democrats who are responsible for it, won’t let us say “Merry Christmas” any more.
Donald Trump, as president, even added his own absurd twist to it. He took credit for bringing “Merry Christmas” back.
To be sure, SNL was mocking both claims. But plenty of people still believe the Republican falsehood that we can’t say “Merry Christmas” any more, even as they simultaneously believe Trump restored it, while at the same time also believing we still can’t say it.
Whether any of those claims are true or false, of course, is not the point for those making them. They are just more falsehoods in the circus parade of falsehoods Republicans have marched around the public square over the past decade, all of which have a single purpose: to make their fellow partisans angry and outraged at the “libs” and Democrats.
To be clear, the Republican narrative about a supposed prohibition against saying “Merry Christmas” is 100% hogwash.
No one banned saying “Merry Christmas.” It is alive and well, unfettered. It is has never faded.
I ought to know. I’ve had a front-row seat for the nation’s celebration of Christmas for more than three decades. To a very small degree, I’ve even had a hand in helping shape that celebration in the nation’s capital.
During the 1990s, I became a volunteer Master of Ceremonies (MC) at the nightly musical programs at the National Christmas Tree in Presidents Park, located in the backyard of the White House. For the last decade or so, I have recruited, trained, coordinated and supervised all the other volunteer MCs at those programs, as well.
The nightly programs run for about two weeks following the night the president officially lights the tree, launching the Christmas season.
By the way — yes — I’m talking about that National Christmas Tree. The one you see on TV every year when the national recording artists and Hollywood movie stars, along with the U.S. Marine Band join the President of the United States for a big show that is often nationally televised. The one where the president lights up the National Christmas Tree and gets the Christmas season officially on its way.
That National Christmas Tree.
You’d think if there was a ban on saying “Merry Christmas,” that would be the place to start, right?
So let me tell you what I have seen and heard over the years at these events to measure it against the claim that saying “Merry Christmas” has been banned.
The first National Christmas Tree lighting I ever witnessed in person was in 1975, when President Ford did the honors. There was a musical program, he switched on the colorful tree lights, made some brief remarks, and then welcomed Santa who “surprised” everyone by dropping in. Then he wished the nation a “Merry Christmas.”
Since 1975, I have attended dozens of annual tree lighting ceremonies with the Presidents who followed Ford into and out of the White House.
Presidents have been doing this, by the way, since 1923 when then-President Coolidge started the tradition when he strolled over to a decorated tree on the White House grounds, flipped the switch, made a very brief speech (they didn’t call him Silent Cal for no reason!) and wished everyone a “Merry Christmas.” That tradition will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year.
Every president since then — Coolidge through Biden — has done exactly the same thing: enjoy the show, flip the switch to light the tree, deliver brief remarks, and wish the nation a “Merry Christmas.”While the presidents have changed and even the actual trees have changed, that basic program structure has not significantly changed in 99 years.
Those of us who serve as MCs at the nightly musical programs also extend “Merry Christmas” greetings to the crowds who visit the tree each night. No one has ever suggested to me that we shouldn’t say “Merry Christmas,” and, in turn, I have never suggested to any of the MCs that I recruit, train, coordinate and supervise that they shouldn’t say it.
Of course they should say it!
We are standing on a stage in front of the National Christmas Tree.
The air is filled with Christmas music.
Presidents Park is filled with Christmas decorations and Christmas ornamentations.
The speech the President delivers on the night the tree is first lit is all about Christmas.
And yet the Republican anger and outrage factory persists with the falsehood that “Merry Christmas” has somehow been banned.
As I said earlier — it seems to me that if the government was going to ban “Merry Christmas,” the National Christmas Tree is where it would start. There is no sign of it here, and there never has been.
I remember the night, Dec. 22, 1963, when I was a fifth grader growing up in Van Meter, Iowa, and I first discovered we had a National Christmas Tree. It was before supper, and I was watching the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Mid-newscast, Cronkite switched to a live broadcast from the National Christmas Tree in Washington, D.C. The lighting of the tree had special significance that year, because it also marked the end of the 30-day national mourning period following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
When the new president, who America was still getting to know — President Lyndon B. Johnson — turned the switch to light the tree, I was absolutely mesmerized. (And we had a black and white TV!)
I promised myself right then, that one day I would see the National Christmas Tree in person, maybe even personally witness a president light it up.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that one day I would not only do that multiple times, but I would also actually be a part of the National Christmas Tree festivities, even in a small way.
Something else I never imagined: that a bunch of “bah-humbug” politicians one day would see Christmas not as a joyous time to celebrate the birth of Christ, with peace on Earth and good will to our fellow men and women, but would instead view it as just one more cudgel, an opportunity to weaponize Christmas with falsehoods to divide us and make their followers angry and outraged.
And that one of those “bah-humbug,” cudgel-wielding politicians would be a President of the United States and many of his followers.
To those who continue to spread the falsehood that we can’t say “Merry Christmas,” I say, please. Knock it off. Just stop.
Instead, have yourself a Merry Christmas!