In 1870, President Grant signed a law making Christmas Day a federal holiday, a national day of celebration. Congress overwhelmingly voted to make that happen, and Grant understood that this was not a trivial gesture. The nation remained deeply divided in the aftermath of the Civil War, and the federal government was looking for ways to reunite the people. Since Christmas was loved by almost everyone, the national holiday became a symbol of healing and unity.
Now, America is divided again, this time over social behavior. Traditional Americans want to hold on to the beliefs and institutions that they believe have made this country great, while secular-progressives lobby for aggressive change - things like redefining marriage to include homosexuals and other redefinitions of tradition.
Thus, deep divisions are growing in the United States, and somewhat shockingly, Christmas is right in the middle of it.
A few years ago, some retail companies ordered their employees not to say the words 'Merry Christmas' because they might offend people who do not celebrate the national holiday. That was insane. These companies were marketing the gift-giving season that accompanies Christmas, but refusing to utter the word. Please.
Once I and some other media people exposed this, millions of Americans decided not to spend money in the offending quarters and the banishment of Christmas quickly ceased. I guess making money trumps offending people all day long.
This year there is another Christmas controversy, this one engineered by some atheists who want to display signs on public property where Christmas or Hanukkah symbols are present. So far, only Illinois, Wisconsin and Washington State have caved in to the atheists, but it is just a matter of time before the nonbelievers come to a State House near you.
The problem with the atheistic displays in Washington and Wisconsin is that the message is hateful, an attack on religion rather than a positive message. In Madison, then-Gov. Tommy Thompson allowed an anti-religion sign, but posted it far away from the Nativity scene and the menorah.
But in Olympia, Gov. Christine Gregoire, a secular-progressive politician, has allowed a sign in the Capitol rotunda that says religion enslaves people - among other not nice things - to be placed within a few feet of Jesus in the manger. And peace on Earth to you, too, Governor.
Gregoire did not have to do that. The legal settlement in Washington clearly states that any holiday display must be appropriate and reflect the decorum of the state Capitol building.
The atheist's anti-religion sign could have easily been rejected as being inappropriate. If the nonbelievers want a seasonal display, make it a positive thing. Put a picture of Charles Darwin and Bill Maher up there with the words: 'These are our guys - happy winter solstice!'
But no, the atheists have to attack the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the wise men and whoever else dropped by the Bethlehem birthplace.
Atheists well understand that Christmas is the most visible display of religion in the world, and any diminishment of it is a good thing to militant secularists. But it is inconceivable that Grant, believing he finally had a slam-dunk issue with which to unite a fractured country, could have foreseen the social civil war we have today.
Sadly, we are no longer one nation under God. But those of us who truly understand the spirit of Christmas - the simple message of good will toward all mankind - know that Grant was on to something. Christmas should be a time of peace and understanding. It's sad that we now have to defend that.
Veteran TV news anchor and author Bill O'Reilly is a host on Fox News. His "Radio Factor" can be heard from 1 to 3 p.m. weekdays on NewsTalk 1300 WIMO-AM.