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The Rhode Island controversy over Gov. Lincoln Chafee's decision to call the decorated spruce tree in the State House rotunda a "holiday tree" instead of a "Christmas tree" spilled over to Jon Stewart's "The Daily Show" program on Dec. 6.
During a segment on the "Tree Fighting Ceremony" that focused on Fox News' assertion that there is a culture war against Christmas, Stewart said, "Perhaps you'd prefer to celebrate Christmas the way our Founding Fathers did."
Then he cut to a video clip from a documentary from the History channel cable network that stated: "On Dec. 25, 1789, the United States Congress sat in session and continued to stay open on Christmas Day for most of the next 67 years."
"That's right," Steward added. "When the country was founded, Congress had exactly the same attitude about the sanctity of Christmas celebrations that a 7-Eleven does today. 'Yeah. We're open.'"
We were intrigued by the idea that members of Congress in the early days would be on the job most Christmas Days, even if Dec. 25 fell on a weekend. So we started digging.
As the program made clear, Stewart was quoting a History channel program, "Christmas Unwrapped - The History of Christmas."
A Google search also brought us to an American Civil Liberties Union website on the "Origins of Christmas." It includes this quote: "Congress met on Christmas Day every year from 1789 to 1855, with only three exceptions."
It lists the source as a 2007 article from the journal Word and World called "Christmas Was Not Always Like This: A Brief History" by Bruce David Forbes. The ACLU web page also references the History channel website, which says that "Christmas wasn't a holiday in early America—in fact Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the country's first Christmas under the new constitution."
We turned to Donald Ritchie, historian of the U.S. Senate. He had his doubts, saying that Congress typically took Christmas Day off. They didn't take a longer Christmas break, as they do now, because, in those days, traveling back to the home districts took too long.
From there, we dug into the records. Our first discovery: the claim that "On Dec. 25, 1789, the United States Congress sat in session" is flat-out wrong.
The web page "Dates of Sessions of the Congress, 1789-present" says that the last session of 1789 for both the House and the Senate was Sept. 29. By the time Christmas came around, Congress had been out of session for nearly three months. Both bodies reconvened on the first Monday in January 1790.
The web page also shows that there were three years from 1789 to 1857 when Congress had a formal recess that extended over Christmas Day. But that doesn't mean they were on the job on Dec. 25 during all the remaining years.
To find out, we went through the journals that were the predecessors of The Congressional Record.
So how many times did the House and Senate meet on Christmas Day during the first 68 years of Congress?
The Senate assembled and immediately adjourned on Christmas Day in 1797; the House met on Christmas in 1802.
Jon Stewart, ridiculing Fox News' coverage of the "War on Christmas," repeated a claim by the History channel that Congress met nearly every Christmas Day from 1789 to 1856. The ACLU makes the same claim, based on a magazine article.
But daily records show the complete opposite, with just one exception each for the House and Senate.
So the assertion that Congress met virtually every Christmas during that period is completely False. The idea that members would do so when there's a 1 in 7 chance that Dec. 25 would fall on a Sunday makes this idea ridiculous. So gather friends and family around the hearth as we give this Christmas claim by Stewart, the ACLU and the History channel a collective Pants On Fire!
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TheDailyShow.com, "Tree Fighting Ceremony," Dec. 6, 2011, accessed Dec. 7, 2011
ACLU.org, "Origins of Christmas," accessed Dec. 7, 2011
History.com, "Christmas Facts," accessed Dec. 8, 2011
Interview and emails, Donald A. Ritchie, historian, U.S. Senate, Dec. 7, 2011
Senate.gov, "Dates of Sessions of the Congress, 1789-present," accessed Dec. 7, 2011
LOC.gov, "A Century of Lawmaking For a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates," Library of Congress, (Annals of Congress covers 1789-1824, Register of Debates covers 1824-1837, and Congressional Globe covers 1833-1873), accessed Dec. 7, 2011. Alternatively, a chronological listing of the early sessions of Congress can be found here for the House and Senate.
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