At the time of the American Founding, celebrations of Christmas in America varied widely, from Puritans and Quakers who shunned or ignored it, to other Protestant sects and Catholics who honored it in their own Christian ways, to those who spent the day in “riot and dissipation,” like an ancient Roman Saturnalia. But E Pluribus Unum—out of many one—was the American motto on the Great Seal, and over the generations, out of many ways of celebrating or ignoring Christmas, came a recognizably American way.
As years went by, cities grew, and commerce flourished, the private celebrations of American Christmas became more public. City, town, and village centers were decorated for the season. Department stores like Macy’s and Woolworth found increasing numbers of customers shopping for Christmas gifts. They put on elaborate Christmas displays with lights, decorations, mechanical toys, and live Santas. By 1856, President Franklin Pierce put up the first Christmas tree in the White House. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed legislation declaring Christmas a federal holiday. In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge lit the first National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse.
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