It seems the United States federal government's establishment of Christmas, a religious holiday, as a federal holiday would be illegal under the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

How is it legal? Or is it case of no one has bothered to change it yet?

  • "Change" or "challenge"? Given the current state of public discourse, it's extremely unlikely that congress would vote to change it. A court challengeseems more likely.
    – phoog
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 0:31
  • Does it matter? Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 6:26
  • 2
    Historically, it was a crime in Massachusetts to close your private business for Christmas or to celebrate Christmas publicly (since that was pagan and contrary to Puritan doctrine). Such a law would probably be invalidated under the 1st and 14th Amendments today.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Nov 20, 2017 at 21:49

4 Answers 4


It is perfectly legal and, many would argue, reasonable to have secular reasons to do something that happen to align with religious reasons. In other words, just because there's a religious reason to do something doesn't invalidate secular reasons to do the same thing.

The New York Times had an article in 2013 that explained the origin of the federal holidays in 1870:

Congress acknowledged that Jan. 1 is "commonly called New Year's Day" and Dec. 25 is "commonly called Christmas Day."

and further on in the article:

If you read the language of the [1870] bill, it's clear that Congress chose dates commonly celebrated as holidays by the American people, not for religious reasons but because of a history of recognition and celebration on those dates.

The federal holidays make sense from an efficiency perspective. If a significant number of federal employees will be taking those days off for celebratory purposes then it doesn't make sense to open federal offices if there's not enough staff.

Federal holidays only apply to federal employees and the District of Columbia. There's no requirement that your private employer, state employer or you recognize those holidays.


The answer is that it is not in fact a religious holiday. At least, as far as the government is concerned. The government doesnt presume or direct the manner in which you will spend the day...you can choose to worship the baby jesus or you can go bowling, or head out to the gun range to enjoy your precous second amendment rights...the govt cares not.

  • 1
    Well, sure, but if the federal government announced all the Jewish high holidays were days off for everyone that would obviously be religiously influenced. Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 21:32
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    @Azor-Ahai Public schools can and do close for Jewish holidays if the area has enough Jews in it.
    – cpast
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 23:30

It is one of many examples of violation of the Constitution that is tolerated by the court for practical reasons.

According to the First Amendment "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." and Thomas Jefferson explicitly said that this means no law can prefer one religion to another, yet of course, this is exactly what making December 25th a national holiday does, because that day is sacred to Christianity.

Of course, by the same logic you could also condemn Blue Laws and all the various Federal laws that mandate Sunday and Saturday as holidays or having special significance.

  • 2
    How is it a violation of the Constitution? Are you saying that anytime secular and religious interests intersect then the secular interests must be abandoned because it's impermissible to do anything for secular reasons that has any benefit to any particular religion?
    – Dave D
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 22:16
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    @DaveD To place a holiday forced by law conveniently on the same day as a key festival for a particular religion is making a law to benefit a particular religion, something that Thomas Jefferson specifically said the First Amendment was supposed to prevent.
    – Cicero
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 22:33
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    I still ask the same question, are you saying that anytime secular and religious interests intersect the secular interests must be abandoned? The law establishing the federal holidays is related to the business of managing the employees of the federal government - there is no requirement that you, any business or any state observe those holidays. Are you saying that the Federal government is bound by the Constitution to ignore the practicality of managing employee attendance on any particular day because it may intersect with a day some use for religious observance?
    – Dave D
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 22:55
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    The law establishing holidays doesn't favor any particular religion. It doesn't require anyone to observe Christmas, it doesn't promote any religious aspect of Christmas and it has no requirement beyond Federal employee management. What language in the law or about the law makes it a religious law rather than a law with a secular purpose? Many people celebrate Christmas in a non-religious way and did so long before it became a Federal holiday.
    – Dave D
    Commented Dec 28, 2015 at 23:24
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    @notmySOaccount - recognizing the practical reasons for closing an office on Christmas Day, federal or not, is not the same as "celebrating" Christmas.
    – Dave D
    Commented Nov 14, 2019 at 19:00

This specific matter, and others related to it, have been challenged in the courts several times. I would direct those interested in this topic to the Supreme Court's Brief in Opposition of Respondents Jeffrey Niemer, Patty Hemsath, and Anne Dolan

The summary finding is:

The federal statute at issue in this case—which declares legal holidays on various days, including Christmas, and gives all federal employees the day off on those days—is unmistakably constitutional. Governments, always and everywhere, have marked in law culturally significant days and accommodated their voluntary celebration; culturally significant days, always and everywhere, include religious and nonreligious celebrations alike.

  • 2
    A brief is not a decision or a legal finding, but rather an argument presented to the court by a party.
    – feetwet
    Commented Jan 24, 2023 at 1:33

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