I initially started writing this post with the intent of posting it on Christmas, but since we lost the war on Christmas once again this year, I had to do all that stupid Christmas stuff like buying presents and spending time with family and friends and didn't have time to finish what I was writing. Not wanting to abandon my half-written Christmas post, I decided to finish it anyway and post it as an end of year "Worst of 2013" piece. So, I hereby give my brand new "Worst Historical Hogwash of the Year" award to Mike Huckabee's "Learn Our History" video series.
The "Learn Our History" video series is Mike Huckabee's new vehicle for indoctrinating children. The videos are cartoons in which five kids with a time machine "travel together to learn the truth about the past." What the quintet of time-travelers -- named Addison, Barley, Connor, Dalia, and Simon -- learn in their travels to the past is, of course, not the truth, but a history full of Christian nationalist revisionism and right-wing political propaganda.
Back in the summer, I kept seeing ads for this new "history" video series on Facebook and everywhere else where Google kindly lets me know about such things, so I decided to check it out and see how bad it was by ordering the DVD of the free trial episode. What I didn't realize was that ordering this free trial DVD was like joining one of those record clubs of yore, with a new DVD arriving in the mail every month, and the hassle of returning it being more troublesome than just keeping the damn thing and having it conveniently billed to my debit card. So, I now have a growing collection of "Learn Our History" DVDs sitting in my office, waiting to be endured and debunked.
One of these fine DVDs, received just before Christmas, was, of course, a Christmas episode, titled "Christmas In America." So, here is my too-late-for-Christmas-but-not-too-late-for-an-end-of-year-worst-of-post debunking of that video.
At the beginning of the video, a mysterious stranger gives the time traveling kids a copy of the book A History of New York by Diedrich Knickerbocker (a.k.a. Washington Irving), and tells them that the book is just the gift they'll need. We'll get to more about this book and how it surprisingly (and completely ridiculously) saved Christmas in a few minutes, but first we need to look at the video's right-wing propaganda and plethora of historical inaccuracies.
After receiving the book from the mysterious stranger, the kids come across a group of sign-wielding people chanting "separate church and state" in protest of the religious holiday display in their town square, which is being guarded by the good Reverend Gallagher.
Addison: "Reverend Gallagher? What's going on?"
Rev. Gallagher: "The town may be tearing down the Christmas nativity scene."
Addison: "Tearing it down?"
Rev. Gallagher: "See that man there? That's Jonah Matthews. He lives in Washington, D.C. He came rolling in here this morning with a bunch of his D.C. big-city lawyers and protesters and filed a lawsuit against the town to take down the nativity, and also the menorah, put up by the Jewish people, who use it to celebrate Hanukkah. He claims that because they're on town land, they violate the separation of church and state. The town's gonna hold a hearing tomorrow, and I'm not moving until they decide."
Connor: "What's he picking on a little town like us for?"
Rev. Gallagher: "Sometimes folks from other places or government think the whole country should just be like them and do what they tell them to do."
Dalia: "But the nativity scene has been in our town as long as I've been alive. It's part of our life here."
Barley: "It's like that guy declaring war on Christmas."
A cop car with a loudspeaker drives by telling the protesters to disperse, at which point Rev. Gallagher gives the kids their reason to travel back in time to find out the "truth" about history.
Rev. Gallagher: "I think the town will let us keep the displays if we can show them that the holidays are part of our shared American heritage; that they're inclusive, and consistent with the Judeo-Christian values on which America was born ..."
With the Fox News "war on Christmas" notion firmly established, the time-traveling kids set off to prove that Christmas is "consistent with the Judeo-Christian values on which America was born."
Deciding that "the first Christmas in America is a good place to start," the time-traveling kids transport themselves to December 25, 1621 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they find that the Pilgrims weren't celebrating Christmas, but working like it was any other day.
Governor William Bradford shows up to explain, telling the kids that the reason the Pilgrims didn't celebrate Christmas was because there is no reference in the Bible to the date of Jesus' birth.
After their extremely brief encounter with William Bradford, the kids shift the focus to their computer and start talking about Oliver Cromwell and how Christmas was cancelled in England in the 1640s. Why do they jump to England when their mission is to find out about the history of Christmas in America? Because, while not being able to completely omit the fact that the Pilgrims didn't celebrate Christmas, the Christian nationalist history revisionists always make any mention of this as brief as possible, and then quickly change the subject. Naturally, it's a bit inconvenient, when claiming that the godless secularists are trying to take away their religious freedom, that the devoutly Christian Pilgrims, who came to America for religious freedom, immediately proceeded to take away the religious freedom of everyone else who settled in their colony -- including the freedom to celebrate Christmas.
December 25, 1621 -- the Christmas that the time-traveling kids are transported to -- was actually the Pilgrims' second Christmas in America, not their first. Their first Christmas in America was in 1620, the winter they spent anchored in Plymouth Bay living on the Mayflower while building their houses. By Christmas 1621, a second ship, the Fortune, had arrived, bringing supplies and a group of about sixty new settlers. Some of these "newcomers," who were not Puritans, did want to celebrate Christmas. But when Governor Bradford saw them celebrating and playing games in the street, he put a stop to it, taking away the freedom of the new colonists to celebrate Christmas in the way that they wanted to. That's what really happened on Christmas 1621 and is, of course, omitted in Huckabee's "Learn Our History" video.
Also omitted is any other real history about Christmas in New England, such as the celebrating of the holiday being made completely illegal in Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681, and, more importantly, the fact that the founders who were from New England (such as John Adams, who appears later in the video) would not have placed any great significance on Christmas. Although it was no longer illegal to celebrate Christmas in the time of the founders, it wasn't widely celebrated in New England until well into the 1800s.
At the time of America's founding, it was business as usual for New Englanders on December 25. The Providence Convention, for example, a convention attended by delegates from all of the New England states to address the issue of wartime inflation and enact laws regulating wages and prices, began on Christmas Day, December 25, 1776, and as late as 1870, public schools in Boston were open on Christmas, with children who were absent on that day being subject to expulsion.
In Huckabee's video, however, America's Christmas tradition needs to be turned into an older, more long-standing practice than it really was. It needs to date back to America's founding era so that the time-traveling kids can use history to make their case at their town's hearing about Rev. Gallagher's religious display. So, as the kids leave the 1621 Pilgrims, the dialog is:
Barley: "So what happened when we got together and got our independence from England?"
Simon: "Let's go find out."
The kids then transport themselves to Trenton, New Jersey on Christmas Eve in 1776, where Washington's troops are getting ready to cross the Delaware. (Why the kids transport themselves to Trenton when Washington's troops were on the other side of the river preparing to cross the river to Trenton is unclear.)
The first thing the kids come across when arriving at Trenton is a bunch of soldiers on their knees being led in prayer by a chaplain.
Simon to the chaplain: "You're a chaplain? In the Continental Army?"
Chaplain: "Of course. General Washington created the Chaplain Corps himself last July."
No, George Washington did not personally create the Chaplain Corps. What really happened was that when Washington was appointed commander of the Continental Army in 1775 and went to Massachusetts, he reported back to the Continental Congress on the condition and make-up of the army units that had already been assembled there. At the time of the Revolution, New England was the "Bible belt," and their army units did have chaplains. Washington had nothing to do with this. The chaplains were already there. The Continental Congress doesn't appear to have even considered the Continental Army having chaplains until they found out from Washington that the units formed in New England already had them, at which time they added them to the pay schedule. Making George Washington himself personally responsible for starting the Chaplain Corps has become a hugely popular myth promoted by the Christian nationalist history revisionists, but it is simply not true.
George Washington himself, of course, shows up in the video, and one of the time-traveling kids asks him why they are fighting on Christmas, to which Washington replies:
"We are fighting now so that we have the right to celebrate and worship however we want for the rest of our days and our children's. We are moved by the spirit of God and the liberty he has given us to break free of the shackles of our British oppressors so that each of us, as individuals, can celebrate Christmas or any other holiday as we so desire."
Yep, in American history according to Mike Huckabee, the Revolutionary War was fought so that American's could celebrate Christmas! This isn't only historically ridiculous, but also extremely ironic considering that Christmas celebrations were an English custom that the English had been pushing on the American colonists since the 1600s! The celebration of Christmas being an English custom was actually part of the reason it had been outlawed in Massachusetts!
The truth is that Christmas became even more unpopular in America at the time of the Revolution and the period that followed. Most Americans wanted nothing to do with anything English, and making a big deal out of Christmas was considered very English.
The time traveling kids then transport themselves to Philadelphia, December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under the new Constitution. Here, the video gets even more historically inaccurate.
Barley: "What's this place?"
Simon: "This is Philadelphia, Barley, and that is the president's house."
Dalia: "Where's the White House?"
Addison: "The White House is being built, Dalia. This is where our first president spent most of his two terms in office, at 6th and Market Streets in Philadelphia."
So, what's wrong with this picture?
Well, first of all, the capital in 1789 was New York, not Philadelphia. George Washington would have been living on Cherry Street in New York City on December 25, 1789.
Second, the White House was not being built in 1789. It hadn't even been decided yet that Washington, D.C. was going to be the permanent capital.
Getting back to our story, George Washington comes to the door (of the house that he didn't live at) and invites the time-traveling kids inside.
Washington: "Come, join us. We're having a Christmas party. Martha and I always hold Christmas parties, and always give out gifts to our staff and servants."
Yes, "servants" -- because we don't call them slaves when they were owned by a great founding father like George Washington.
As for George and Martha Washington always holding Christmas parties, all you have to do is look at Washington's diaries to see that they really didn't spend their Christmases differently than any other day -- a few guests for dinner, or no visitors at all. (I bet those "servants" didn't get any Christmas presents either.) There is no indication whatsoever that George Washington was big on celebrating Christmas. In fact, he seems to have worked on quite a few Christmases, as shown by the letters he wrote on December 25 in various years. He did offer the recipients of a few of these letters "the compliments of the season," (a holiday greeting that would probably make Bill "war on Christmas" O'Reilly's head explode), but that's about it.
Washington also didn't seem to be very full of Christmas spirit as a young colonel serving in the British army during the French and Indian War. His heart-warming Merry Christmas message to his troops, written on December 25, 1755, read: "Any Soldier who shall desert, though he return again, shall be hanged without Mercy."
Now, getting back once again to the 1789 Christmas party scene in Huckabee's "Learn Our History" video, the attendees at the party are John and Abigail Adams and Benjamin Franklin (who actually was in Philadelphia at the time, but probably bedridden by this time since this was only a few months before he died).
For no apparent reason, the guests at Washington's historically impossible Christmas party start talking about religious freedom:
Adams: "Our great land is all about the freedom of religion. People can celebrate in any manner they wish."
Washington: "We all just came from church."
Connor: "All of you? I thought government and religion were supposed to be separate."
Washington: "Pardon me?"
So here we have the typical specious equation found in just about every Christian nationalist history book and video: If a founder attended church as an individual, it meant they didn't think there was any separation between religion and the government.
Although he wasn't a regular churchgoer during any other part of his life, Washington did attend more regularly while in the public eye as president, so, not surprisingly, he did attend church at St. Paul's in New York on December 25, 1789.
Benjamin Franklin then proceeds to set the kids straight about this separation of church and state nonsense:
Barley to Franklin: "I don't understand. Why are Mr. Washington and Mr. Adams so confused when we mentioned the separation of church and state?"
Franklin responds with a Franklin-esque metaphor about bifocals, telling the kids not to look at issues "through the lens of the future," and saying not to "let future interpreters misdirect our intentions" about the Bill of Rights.
As the kids are leaving Washington's party at the house in Philadelphia where he didn't live in 1789, Abigail Adams, who actually would have been in New York at the time, says to them:
"In New York, where the need is greatest, there is not much Christmas spirit. I worry that the spirit of Christmas is dying."
The kids then travel to New York, arriving in the city in 1812. This is where the Diedrich Knickerbocker (a.k.a. Washington Irving) book given to them by the mysterious stranger at the beginning of the video comes back into the story.
When the kids arrive in New York, they see "missing" posters saying that the Dutch historian Diedrich Knickerbocker is missing.
Washington Irving then shows up as the headless horseman to save the kids from some scary, big-city thugs who want to steal their time-traveling bicycles.
After the thugs are scared off by the headless horseman, Simon asks Washington Irving: "What's with all the posters and stuff?"
Irving reveals that he is Diedrich Knickerbocker, and that the missing posters are a publicity stunt to sell his History of New York. (Washington Irving actually did pull a publicity stunt in 1809, planting notices in New York newspapers about the fictitious "renowned historian" Diedrich Knickerbocker having disappeared from his hotel, leaving behind only the manuscript of his book, which was being published to pay the missing author's hotel bill.)
Washington Irving to the kids: "As you can see, the spirit of Christmas is missing in this land, so I've put stories of Saint Nicholas in my book, which I wrote under the pen name of Diedrich Knickerbocker, who is, of course, now missing."
After Irving leaves, the kids talk about his book:
Dalia: "Did the book help bring Christmas spirit to New York?"
Simon: "It was a big success, Dalia, And Washington Irving followed with his Christmas stories in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, about Christmas customs in an English manor."
So, what's wrong with this story? Washington Irving did write a book titled A History of New York under the name Diedrich Knickerbocker, and he did pull a publicity stunt to sell it similar to what's depicted in the video, and Irving's Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, published a decade later when he was living in England, did include some stories about the Christmas customs in a fictional English manor. So this part of Mike Huckabee's "history" video seems to be fairly accurate, right? Wrong.
Washington Irving's A History of New York wasn't a real history of New York. It was a political satire, using a fictitious version of the Dutch settlement of New York to mock the current state of affairs in "Jeffersonian" America, with one of the book's characters, a fictional governor of New York named William Kieft, being a caricature of Thomas Jefferson himself.
Irving's A History of New York did contain a number of references to St. Nicholas, but these references were not put in the book to revive the spirit of Christmas in New York as Irving tells the time-traveling kids. They were part of Irving's mocking of things like the hypocrisy of the rich making a show of being pious Christians. For example, here is one of the St. Nicholas passages from the book:
"Nor must I omit to record one of the earliest measures of this infant settlement, inasmuch as it shows the piety of our forefathers, and that, like good Christians, they were always ready to serve God, after they had first served themselves. Thus, having quietly settled themselves down, and provided for their own comfort, they bethought themselves of testifying their gratitude to the great and good St. Nicholas, for his protecting care in guiding them to this delectable abode. To this end they built a fair and goodly chapel within the fort, which they consecrated to his name; whereupon he immediately took the town of New Amsterdam under his peculiar patronage, and he has even since been, and I devoutly hope will ever be, the tutelar saint of this excellent city.
"At this early period was instituted that pious ceremony, still religiously observed in all our ancient families of the right breed, of hanging up a stocking in the chimney on St. Nicholas Eve; which stocking is always found in the morning miraculously filled; for the good St. Nicholas has ever been a great giver of gifts, particularly to children."
Irving's book also mocked things like the Dutch settlers' attempts to convert the Indians to Christianity, when the Indians actually lived a much more "Christian" life than the settlers themselves did:
"But the most important branch of civilization, and which has most strenuously been extolled by the zealous and pious fathers of the Roman Church, is the introduction of the Christian faith. It was truly a sight that might well inspire horror, to behold these savages tumbling among the dark mountains of paganism, and guilty of the most horrible ignorance of religion. It is true, they neither stole nor defrauded; they were sober, frugal, continent, and faithful to their word; but though they acted right habitually, it was all in vain, unless they acted so from precept. The new comers, therefore, used every method to induce them to embrace and practice the true religion -- except, indeed, that of setting them the example.
"But not withstanding all these complicated labors for their good, such was the unparalleled obstinacy of these stubborn wretches, that they ungratefully refused to acknowledge the strangers as their benefactors, and persisted in disbelieving the doctrines they endeavored to inculcate; most insolently alleging that, from their conduct, the advocates of Christianity did not seem to believe in it themselves."
Obviously, Washington Irving's political satire, A History of New York, was not a book of heartwarming tales of Christmas spirit as portrayed in Mike Huckabee's "Learn Our History" video, and it certainly wouldn't be a book that would become any child's favorite Christmas story, which we'll get back to when we get to the "punch line" at the end of this post. But first, the time-traveling kids have one more stop to make.
The kids are next transported to Washington, D.C. in December 1864, where they find wounded Union soldiers being attended to by Clara Barton and Abraham Lincoln.
Ulysses S. Grant, in his general's uniform, walks into the make-shift hospital and says: "And if you ask me, it should be a national holiday."
Simon: "That's General Ulysses S. Grant, the leader of the Union forces. And after the war he became president and actually made Christmas a federal holiday."
No, Mr. Huckabee, President Grant did not make Christmas a federal holiday, and it didn't happen in 1870. But I guess a famous military hero like Grant, who can show up in his general's uniform saying "if you ask me, it should be a national holiday," will impress the kiddies more than an appearance by a cartoon Chester A. Arthur, the president under whom Christmas actually was made a holiday for federal employees in 1885.
Christmas being made a federal holiday had absolutely nothing to do with the government recognizing the day out of any sort of Christmas spirit or religious devotion. The reason it eventually became a federal holiday began with the bankers and businessmen of Washington, D.C., who lobbied Congress to make it a legal bank holiday in the District of Columbia.
As of 1870, there were no official federal holidays at all. Individual state legislatures had passed laws making various holidays legal bank holidays within their states, but there were no laws making any holidays legal bank holidays within the District of Columbia. The people in the district, of course, considered certain days to be holidays, which caused problems for bankers and businesses if, for example, a payment was due on one of these days. The bankers wanted Congress (which had the authority to make local laws for the District of Columbia) to pass legislation making four holidays legal banking holidays within the district, putting it into law that any financial transactions or payment due dates that fell on these days would be legally considered to be dated on the day previous to the holiday.
The bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Grant in 1870 did not make Christmas or the three other holidays federal holidays. The Act was titled "An Act making the first day of January, the twenty-fifth day of December, the fourth day of July, and Thanksgiving day, holidays, within the District of Columbia," and, as its title says, only applied to the District of Columbia. This short, one-section law simply stated that these four days:
"shall be holidays within the District of Columbia, and for all purposes of presenting for payment or acceptance for the maturity and protest, and giving notice of dishonor of bills of exchange, bank checks, and promisory notes or other negotiable or commercial paper, be treated and considered as is the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday, and all notes, drafts, checks, or other commercial or negotiable paper falling due, or maturing on either of said holidays shall be deemed as having matured on the day previous."
How Christmas and the other holidays ended up becoming federal holidays was that the 1870 law making these days legal holidays for everybody in the District of Columbia meant that they were also holidays for those federal government employees who happened to work within the district. Nothing, however, said that they had to get paid for these holidays. What changed this was that some federal employees in the District of Columbia were getting paid for the holidays, but others weren't. This led to a grievance being filed a few years later by some District of Columbia federal employees who hadn't gotten paid for New Year's Day while other federal employees in the district had gotten paid. The House committee to whom this grievance was referred concluded that all federal employees in the district should be treated equally, and that even though no legislation required that any of them be paid for holidays, if some of them were being paid all of them should be paid.
But this paid holidays decision still only applied to the federal employees working in the District of Columbia. This led to complaints from federal employees in the rest of the country, who naturally considered it unfair that federal employees in the District of Columbia were getting paid for holidays and they weren't. So, in 1885, Congress passed the following joint resolution, making the four holidays in the 1870 District of Columbia law, plus Washington's birthday, which had also become a legal holiday in the District of Columbia by then, paid holidays for all per diem federal employees, regardless of where in the country they were working.
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the Employees of the Navy Yard, Government Printing Office, Bureau of Printing and Engraving, and all other per diem employees of the Government on duty at Washington, or elsewhere in the United States, shall be allowed the following holidays, to wit: The first day of January, the twenty-second day of February, the fourth day of July, the twenty-fifth day of December, and such days as may be designated by the President as days for national thanksgiving,* and shall receive the same pay as on other days.
(*The reason for the vague "such days as may be designated by the President" language for Thanksgiving was that there was no set day for Thanksgiving at that time. Thanksgiving always being the last Thursday of November had caught on after Abraham Lincoln designated that day for 1863, but there was nothing saying it had to be that day. Another president could decide to make it different day, as Franklin Roosevelt did in 1939, when he moved it to the second to last Thursday to add a week to the Christmas shopping season to boost the economy.)
So, as you can see, the government making Christmas a federal holiday had nothing at all to do with recognizing the day for any religious reason. It was all because a local banking law for the District of Columbia led to it becoming necessary to make the day a paid holiday for all federal employees.
Mike Huckabee's revisionist "Learn Our History" version of American history, however, repeats the widespread inaccuracy that it was President Grant (the same President Grant who pushed for a constitutional amendment prohibiting the teaching of religion in public schools) who made Christmas a federal holiday in 1870. In the real version of American history, the 1870 act signed by Grant merely made it a legal bank holiday in the District of Columbia. It was the 1885 joint resolution of Congress that made "the twenty-fifth day of December" a federal holiday, doing so without even mentioning the word Christmas. (Bill O'Reilly would certainly have had a field day with that! I can just hear him now calling Chester A. Arthur a pinhead!)
The time-traveling kids now decide that they've collected enough historical "facts," and do a little recap:
Barley: "Hang on. Let me get this right. Christmas helped us win our freedom from England, and the founding fathers used the Bill of Rights to protect it, and then the government made it a federal holiday, and that helped it grow into the awesome holiday it is today?
Simon: "That's right, Barley."
Barley: "I think we've made our case right there."
Connor: "Yeah, let's go save Rev. Gallagher and the manger."
Armed with their historical (mis)information, the kids transport themselves back to the present day, showing up at the hearing to save Rev. Gallagher's religious display.
But the "history" the kids come back with doesn't sway the evil, big-city, secularist troublemaker.
Jonah Matthews: "I will not relent! I will have you all arrested! You know nothing of the history of Christmas in America! It's nothing like you say!"
Barley: "We got a book here that says you're wrong, buddy."
Barley then walks over to Jonah Matthews and shows him the copy of Washington Irving's A History of New York, which, as I've already explained, was not a book of Christmas stories, but a mock history book filled with political satire.
Apparently, Mike Huckabee and his team of history experts, called the "Council of Masters" -- seriously, he calls them the Council of Masters -- had no idea what this book was, because this is how the story ends:
Jonah Matthews: "I remember this book. I had one just like it as a child, and it's just that -- a children's book."
Matthews then opens the book, and inscribed on the first page is a note from his father (apparently the mysterious stranger who gave the kids the book), which reads:
"To my boy Jonah,
"I hope you will always treasure these stories and remember all of our wonderful holidays together.
An overwhelmed Matthews can barely speak.
Matthews: "H-h-how did you ...?"
Barley: "Someone special thought we needed to have it. I guess he was right."
At this point, the evil, big-city secularist Jonah Matthews -- apparently overcome with emotion brought on by fond childhood memories of reading a book of nineteenth century political satire -- immediately withdraws his complaint about the town's religious holiday display, and Christmas is saved!
(The "Learn Our History" website says: "If you have any questions about the history as we portray it, or believe something is inaccurate, please email us at email@example.com so we can address your concerns," so I have emailed this article to them. I shall be waiting with bated breath as the new year begins to see how the good folks at Mike Huckabee's "Learn Our History," with their Council of Masters, address my concerns.)