Claremont’s John J. Pitney notes some past presidential Christmas greetings. So far as I can tell, Herbert Hoover was the first president to send a formal Christmas greeting to disabled veterans and an informal one to the nation as a whole (though we’ve had a national Christmas tree since the Coolidge Administration). The practice seems to have been formalized by FDR in 1933 with this message:
For me and for my family it is the happiest of Christmases.In 1935, FDR had this to say:
To the many thousands of you who have thought of me and have sent me greetings, and I hope all of you are hearing my voice, I want to tell you how profoundly grateful I am. If it were within my power so to do I would personally thank each and every one of you for your remembrance of me, but there are so many thousands of you that that happy task is impossible.
Even more greatly, my happiness springs from the deep conviction that this year marks a greater national understanding of the significance in our modern lives of the teachings of Him whose birth we celebrate. To more and more of us the words "Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself" have taken on a meaning that is showing itself and proving itself in our purposes and daily lives.
May the practice of that high ideal grow in us all in the year to come.
I give you and send you one and all, old and young, a Merry Christmas and a truly Happy New Year.
We are gathered together in a typical American setting in the park here in front of the White House. Before me and around me is an American assemblage—men and women of all ages, youths and maidens, young children who know nothing about the cares of life—all jubilant with joyous expectation.
The night is falling and the spirit of other days, too, broods over the scene. Andrew Jackson looks down upon us from his prancing steed; and the four corners of the square in which we are gathered around a gaily lit Christmas tree are guarded by the figures of intrepid leaders in the Revolutionary War—Von Steuben, the German; Kosciusko, the Pole; and Lafayette and Rochambeau from the shores of France.
This is in keeping with the universal spirit of the festival we are celebrating; for we who stand here among our guardians out of the past and from far shores are, I suppose, as diverse in blood and origin as are the uncounted millions throughout the land to whom these words go out tonight. But around the Manger of the Babe of Bethlehem "all Nations and kindreds and tongues" find unity. For the spirit of Christmas knows no race, no creed, no clime, no limitation of time or space.
The spirit of Christmas breathes an eternal message of peace and good-will to all men. We pause therefore on this Holy Night and, laying down the burdens and the cares of life and casting aside the anxieties of the common day, rejoice that nineteen hundred years ago, heralded by angels, there came into the world One whose message was of peace, who gave to all mankind a new commandment of love. In that message of love and of peace we find the true meaning of Christmas.
And so I greet you with the greeting of the Angels on that first Christmas at Bethlehem which, resounding through centuries, still rings out with its eternal message: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good-will to men."
In 1941, he had these words for us:
Our strongest weapon in this war is that conviction of the dignity and brotherhood of man which Christmas Day signifies-more than any other day or any other symbol.
Against enemies who preach the principles of hate and practice them, we set our faith in human love and in God’s care for us and all men everywhere.
It is in that spirit, and with particular thoughtfulness of those, our sons and brothers, who serve in our armed forces on land and sea, near and far- those who serve for us and endure for us that we light our Christmas candles now across the continent from one coast to the other on this Christmas Eve.
We have joined with many other Nations and peoples in a very great cause. Millions of them have been engaged in the task of defending good with their life-blood for months and for years.
You can listen to the remarks of Roosevelt’s special guest on that occasion here (#17)
The tradition was upheld by successive presidents, with Eisenhower offering the following message in 1953:
For us, this Christmas is truly a season of good will--and our first peaceful one since 1949. Our national and individual blessings are manifold. Our hopes are bright even though the world still stands divided in two antagonistic parts.
More precisely than in any other way, prayer places freedom and communism in opposition, one to the other. The Communist can find no reserve of strength in prayer because his doctrine of materialism and statism denies the dignity of man and consequently the existence of God. But in America, George Washington long ago rejected exclusive dependence upon mere materialistic values. In the bitter and critical winter at Valley Forge, when the cause of liberty was so near defeat, his recourse was sincere and earnest prayer. From it he received new hope and new strength of purpose out of which grew the freedom in which we celebrate this Christmas season.
As religious faith is the foundation of free government, so is prayer an indispensable part of that faith.
A few years later, he offered this "natural law" gloss on the meaning of Christmas:
The Christmas Message of "Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men" is not alone an ideal of Christianity. It is a basic aspiration of Christian, Jew, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist alike--of every person in the world who has faith in an Almighty God.
It is not limited to us as Americans or even to people of the free world. It is matched in yearning in the innermost thoughts of all peoples. It is a universal, divine spark that lights the soul of mankind.
I could go on and on and on. I won’t say that the messages are all theologically coherent (here’s a particularly bad one). But only a few (see these Nixonian examples) have been relentlessly secular. (Ronald Reagan, as this example shows, was thoughtfully inclusive.)