In his Civil War diary, Private Alfred Bellard of the Fifth New Jersey Infantry Regiment wrote about the attempt his unit made to celebrate Christmas from the front line in Virginia. “In order to make it look [as] much like Christmas as possible, a small tree was stuck up in front of our tent, decked off with hard tack and pork, in lieu of cakes and oranges, etc.,” Bellard wrote. The Christmas traditions we take for granted now were still new in the 1860s; the Christmas tree, which had been disdained as a pagan symbol in the nation’s early years, only started to appear in popular Christmas imagery in 1850.
Accordingly, soldiers in both the Union and Confederate armies were eager to cling to those traditions, even amidst the fighting. In a December 1863 issue of Harper’s (with a centerfold illustration by Thomas Nast—the illustrator credited with popularizing the image of Santa as a rotund figure with a hat and white beard—depicting a furloughed soldier home for the holiday), a writer opined, “Even with all the sorrow that hangs, and will forever hang, over so many households; even while war still rages; even while there are serious questions yet to be settled—ought it not to be, and is it not, a merry Christmas?” Taking that message to heart the following year, ninety Union soldiers from a Michigan regiment, led by their captain, spent December 25, 1864, tying tree branches to the heads of their mule teams, to pass as reindeer, and distributing food and supplies to civilians living in rural Georgia.
The civil war within the Texas GOP, meanwhile, is far less jolly by comparison. For evidence, look no further than the tree on the floor of the Texas House of Representatives, which—unlike the two-plus-story symbol of the season that appears most years, filling the capacious chamber with at least the semblance of holiday cheer—is a mere twelve-foot spruce, dwarfed on all sides by the antipathy between the Texas House and Governor Greg Abbott.
The power struggle between Abbott and the House has often manifested this past year as a battle over whether or not to establish a school voucher system in Texas. Abbott wants one, and the House does not. The measure failed during the 2023 regular session; the Lege then spent two special sessions battling first over the specific form that a change to the state’s property tax law should take, and then over the fate of impeached-but-acquitted Attorney General Ken Paxton. As summer turned to fall, Abbott recalled lawmakers yet again, this time with a call to pass a voucher program. That session ended on November 7 with House lawmakers still opposed to the policy, and Abbott responded by calling them back for yet another session that same day.
The titanic tree of tradition, it turns out, is a victim of the seemingly eternal back-and-forth. Normally, lawmakers don’t spend much time in the chamber during the holiday season, and the typical beneficiaries of the supersized tree are the tourists who visit the chamber after Thanksgiving (although lawmakers are invited to decorate the tree with ornaments from constituents). But, because Abbott called a special session, an anomaly at this time of year, and House members are still working, the traditionally sized tree would have blocked the view of the sergeant at arms, who’s tasked with keeping order in the chamber. As longtime Lege reporter Scott Braddock noted in Quorum Report, “There was a chance, I’m told, that there would be no trees at all because we are still in a special session. . . . But there was pushback to the idea of having no tree, so the smaller spruces were the compromise position.” And so the legislative body will make do with the li’l Charlie Brown Christmas substitute, along with a pair of even smaller trees along the side for photo opportunities.
The debate over vouchers, while a substantive policy disagreement, is also, to some extent, a proxy battle in the broader war between different parts of the state GOP. Other fronts in that war have been significant—say, the fate of impeached-but-acquitted Attorney General Ken Paxton—or minimal, such as the dispute over which of the fairly similar proposed property tax plans to advance. Disagreement is part of politics, and sometimes a governor who would very much like to sign a law creating a school vouchers program simply can’t cause one to appear on his desk through sheer force of will.
What he can do, however, is make life generally miserable for those lawmakers who continue to defy his wishes by keeping them stuck in Austin and away from their families for the bulk of the year.
Abbott has previously expressed his intention to call as many special sessions as it takes to get his way (each of which costs taxpayers between $800,000 and $1.2 million). While he hasn’t yet announced whether he’ll recall them for yet another session during December, the sad little tree that sits in the House chamber is a tangible manifestation of the unique power to ruin lawmakers’ year, one month at a time, that the governor of Texas possesses. In the words of another man who famously loved making workers toil through the holiday season: Bah, humbug.