Walt Whitman sent a Christmas card to the entire country of Brazil in 1889. That year, a Brazilian field marshal named Manuel Deodoro da Fonseca overthrew Emperor Dom Pedro II and declared the nation a republic. On Christmas Day, seventy-year-old Whitman wrote a brief poem to welcome Brazil into the family of democratic nations. It is not a poem about the birth of Christ, it is a poem about the birth of democracy. Whitman thought a lot about what it meant to live in a democracy. He was born at a time when self-government was a new thing—an exciting experiment whose success was by no means guaranteed. And he lived through the cataclysm of the American Civil War—one of the most severe tests that any democracy has ever faced.
Almost everything that Whitman wrote was, at some level, an attempt to understand and explain the deepest principles of democracy. These principles went well beyond social organization. Democracy was simply the social extension of the idea that all human beings have equal worth. And only human beings who grasp this principle—really grasp it—can make a democratic society work. Democratic government, according to Whitman, required democratic people, or people who recognize the truth of fundamental human equality. This is what he told the Brazilians in his Christmas greeting.
Welcome, Brazilian brother—thy ample place is ready;
A loving hand—a smile from the north—a sunny instant hail!
(Let the future care for itself, where it reveals its troubles, impedimentas,
Ours, ours the present throe, the democratic aim, the acceptance and the faith;)
To thee to-day our reaching arm, our turning neck—
to thee from us the expectant eye,
Thou cluster free! thou brilliant lustrous one! thou, learning well,
The true lesson of a nation’s light in the sky,
(More shining than the Cross, more than the Crown,)
The height to be superb humanity.
This is a secular Christmas poem, but then– Walt was a thoroughgoing humanist. He believed that human beings have all the divinity necessary to make it through this world. His poem invokes the secular meaning of Christmas, a holiday celebrating universal humanity and goodwill. I will add, “God bless us, everyone.”