There Is No War on Christmas

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The idea of a War on Christmas may sound laughable, but in the United States we cannot avoid overhearing the complaint of “America’s tragically persecuted Christian super-majority” (to rip off a phrase by J. Daniel Janzen in Flak Magazine years ago). We must pay attention to what the complaint means.

It is antisemitic

Millions of Americans take the “War on Christmas” absolutely seriously. It leads to a form of antisemitism: the targets of the pro-Christmas warriors are Jewish-run businesses.

More on this later.

It is fictitious

For whoever needs to hear it: Christmas is not under siege. The “war” is a deliberate media creation. The righteous response is all an act.

It’s easy to find examples of public Christmas displays. There are, as Jon Stewart noted on his comedy hour “The Daily Show” in 2011, ostentatious Christmas displays all over the country and even in the White House, many of which “are subsidized by — uh, what’s that thing you don’t want to spend on anything? — taxpayer money!”

Christmas. Is. Everywhere.

In 2017, upon the death of Fox News founder Roger Ailes, the Catholic League tweeted: “Roger Ailes did more for America than anyone in television history.” To which journalist Amy Sullivan responded: “Yes, clearly without Ailes, Christmas would have lost the war.” The joke is, at least in part, a reference to the media machine that was then gearing up for its 13th season of “War on Christmas” coverage; if there really had been a 13-year war, surely Christmas would have already lost.

What’s happening, according to the made-up theory

Supposedly there are legions of anti-Christian or hyper-politically-correct people who are out to remove all references to Christmas from the public square. They’re easy to spot: they use the expansive term “holiday” where the more narrowly specific “Christmas” would sound better to good Christians. These pseudo-militants need to be stopped before they succeed in eradicating Christmas altogether.

This is, of course, not a real threat.

Smashed Christmas ornaments.
Smashed Christmas ornaments.

Who’s been injured by not hearing ‘Christmas’ often enough?

No one.

How inclusive language works

The words “holiday” or “season” are inclusive because they are broad. They are not exclusive, and they are not offensive. The admission of the existence of other holidays does not diminish anyone’s enjoyment of their own holiday.

So, too, the Hebrew and Yiddish expressions “chag sameach” and “good yontif” translate as “happy holiday,” and Jews use them to refer to the Jewish holiday du jour. We already know what holiday it is. We don’t have to inform each other.

So, too, when one says “Have a nice day,” it would be unexpected to receive an accusation of waging a “War on Thursday” because of a failure to specify the day of the week.

So, too, when you buy a birthday cake, it doesn’t already have your name written on it. The baker doesn’t assume in advance who’s having a birthday. The world does not revolve around your birthday or your family members’ birthdays. You have to let people know what’s happening and what you want. This is normal.

Why the ‘War on Christmas’ complaint is nebulous

Whose needs are emphasized: salespeople or shoppers? Is it about rights or expectations? If a specific acknowledgment like “December 25” is insufficient, why? What is gained by saying the word “Christmas,” or what is lost by not saying it? Is there a distinction between matter-of-fact references to the holiday — as, for example, two Jews can coherently discuss buying Christmas presents for their Christian relatives and friends — and references that are more affirmative, celebratory, or sacred?

Must all stores decorate in red and green? Must they have trees? Can they be plastic trees? Do stores have to pretend that Santa exists? How many reindeer and elves are canonical? Do stores need to have portraits of Jesus? Of the Virgin Mary? Do Jesus and Mary have to be white?

Is this about centralizing the needs of Christians or non-Christians? …wait, don’t answer that.

What needs to be done, according to the made-up theory

Beat the enemies of Christmas at their own game! Make sure that stores, public events, and personal greetings contain as many explicit references to “Christmas” as possible. Don’t instruct employees to say “holiday”; let them use their own judgment; but then, of course, ensure that their personal judgment leads them to say “Christmas.”

How long we’ve endured hearing about it

Since the Bush administration. Bill O’Reilly introduced a Christmas Under Siege segment on his Fox News O’Reilly Factor show in December 2004. Of these early O’Reilly segments, David Kyle Johnson said, “They were not reporting actual events. Everything they complained about either never even happened or was completely exaggerated.” Comedian Jon Stewart began mocking the segment on The Daily Show in December 2005.

PBS Frontline said of President George W. Bush: “He is, by most accounts, the most openly religious president in generations.” Yet it was not always enough to satisfy the demographic. When Bush mailed a photograph of the White House pets with wishes for a good “holiday” to over a million people in 2005, editor Joseph Farah broadcast himself destroying the card. In 2007, the White House sent a more overtly religious card that still omitted the word “Christmas” but apparently ceded to pressure by including a Bible quote and wishes for a “blessed season.”

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So, O’Reilly was claiming the alleged War on Christmas was in full force during all of Bush’s second term, yet eventually the problem was more memorably pinned on Bush’s successor, President Barack Obama. The implication, as Chris Tognotti put it, is that Obama “refused to say the words Merry Christmas, or somehow presided over a country in which people weren’t allowed to do so” — a claim that is instantaneously disprovable in any of a thousand ways.

Michelle Obama, wearing a crimson evening gown, and Barack Obama, wearing a bow tie, pose in front of a large Christmas tree.
Michelle Obama, wearing a crimson evening gown, and Barack Obama, wearing a bow tie, pose in front of a large Christmas tree.

In December 2016, after Trump had been elected but before he was inaugurated, his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told Sean Hannity on Fox News: “You can say again, ‘Merry Christmas,’ because Donald Trump is now the president…it’s not a pejorative word anymore.” After taking office, Trump began insisting he would resurrect the word “Christmas.” “We are getting near the beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore,” he told the Values Voter Summit in October 2017. A political action committee called America First Policies released a video advertisement ending with a little white girl thanking the new president “for letting us say Merry Christmas again.” Was Trump’s term a safe haven for Christmas revelers? Apparently not, because, in December 2020, near the end of Trump’s term, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) tweeted that Dr. Anthony Fauci — who was making public health recommendations in his role as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease — might try to cancel “saying Merry Christmas.”

Like all theology, the War on Christmas never happened and yet it is eternal.

The U.S. has supposedly been involved in the War on Christmas almost as long as it has been in the War in Afghanistan.

It’s an assertion of Christian supremacy

Sarah Jones said in the New Republic in August 2018 that evangelical leaders invited to Trump’s White House “probably didn’t even believe” him when he delivered to them an “outlandish claim: that more people are saying ‘Merry Christmas’ now that he’s president.”

They know the War on Christmas isn’t real.

Nonetheless, as Jones said, Trump describes a fictitious war “in terms evangelicals recognize. It’s a war they intend to win.”

The claim that Trump is making the nation safe for Christmas greetings “sounds insipid to outsiders,” Sarah Posner wrote in her 2020 book Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, “but to the Christian right it simply encapsulates how he is restoring their diminished power.”

The “War on Christmas” is a metaphor for the idea that white American Christian dominance is threatened.

A holiday can have both religious and secular meanings. The same festival can reflect both Christian theology and American culture. The problem lies in the assumption that a holiday becomes American because it is Christian; the implication there is that Christianity determines what it means to be American.

Also, it’s ‘outrage porn’

Perhaps not everyone who defends Christmas from its imaginary enemies is a true believer in Christian supremacy. Some are simply agitated by the outrage machine, whatever the topic. They’d be outraged if someone told them that powdered donuts were under attack.

In The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Mark Manson addressed the handwringing over the lack of Christmas trees at malls:

“The writer and media commentator Ryan Holiday refers to this as ‘outrage porn’: rather than report on real stories and real issues, the media find it much easier (and more profitable) to find something mildly offensive, broadcast it to a wide audience, generate outrage, and then broadcast that outrage back across the population in a way that outrages yet another part of the population. This triggers a kind of echo of bullshit pinging back and forth between two imaginary sides, meanwhile distracting everyone from real societal problems.”

The response to the ‘War on Christmas’ originally expressed itself as a boycott

In 2005, the right-wing American Family Association (which the SPLC designates as a hate group) identified companies that allegedly “‘banned Christmas’ from their retail ads, in-store promotions or television commercials.” These companies’ supposed crimes amounted to using the word “Christmas” selectively (some would say judiciously). They generally did not ban it.

The AFA’s website that December declared boycotts against the seven companies that were, in the AFA’s view, the worst corporate offenders. Their assessment was entirely subjective, and it was really this ridiculous:

  • Office Max and Best Buy had “no ‘Christmas’ in their advertising.”
  • Staples offered merely three products when customers searched its website for “Christmas.”
  • Kmart dared to refer online customers who “need it by Christmas” to a “Holiday Shipping Dates” section.
  • Nordstrom published a “holiday shipping” schedule that referred to “December 25.”

Other crusaders also put retailers through the wringer. Macy’s, after being attacked by Bill O’Reilly for allegedly “banning” the phrase “Merry Christmas,” explained that it had merely advised employees not to make assumptions about which holidays its customers celebrate. After a customer service representative for Land’s End made a similar point, the company was drawn into a weeklong dispute with the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which encouraged Catholics to call the company and request “Christmas” catalogs as a form of protest.

The AFA cited Wal-Mart as an offender, and the Catholic League also boycotted Wal-Mart for one day in November 2005. League president Bill Donohue complained that when he searched Wal-Mart’s website for “Hanukkah” or “Kwanzaa,” he was given search results of individual items, but when he searched for “Christmas,” he was redirected to an entire “Holiday” shopping section. “Wal-Mart is practicing discrimination,” Donohue declared, implying that this special treatment of Christmas — the organization of thousands of Christmas products in a separate section of the website — was inferior treatment. Wal-Mart apologized the next day, and a subsequent search for “Christmas” on their website produced a disorganized list of 7,921 products, apparently exactly what the Catholic League had demanded as an expression of religious tolerance and goodwill.

What religion are the business owners?

In 2005, two-thirds of a million Christians signed an AFA online petition condemning certain companies’ lack of outward Christian celebration.

These companies were founded mainly by Jews.

  • Sears was shaped by Julius Rosenwald, who became the second president in 1895 and was the original business partner of founder Richard Sears.
  • Kmart was the child of the S. S. Kresge Corporation, founded by Sebastian Kresge in 1899.
  • Kohl’s was founded by Max Kohl in 1962.
  • Home Depot was founded by Bernie Marcus and Arthur Blank in 1979.
  • Staples was founded by Thomas Stemberg and Leo Kahn in 1985.
  • Macy’s became one of the most famous Jewish business success stories after the dry goods store was acquired in 1896 by Isidor and Nathan Straus.

So there is a problem with asserting that these companies have an obligation to serve specifically Christian needs. They certainly sell products intended to be given as holiday gifts, and, if some Christians do not find enough religious or cultural affirmation, they may shop elsewhere. But to have a sense of entitlement that these are supposed to be Christmas-themed stores, and that the stores are not Christian enough, is problematic at its core, because these were originally Jewish-owned businesses.

The AFA did not stop. Their 2008 list of “naughty” companies included Barnes & Noble, whose chairman Leonard Riggio was a recipient of an award from the Jewish-led Anti-Defamation League for his efforts to educate children against prejudice; Costco, whose CEO James Sinegal was mentored by Jewish businessman Sol Price; and Kroger, which at the time was expanding its selection of kosher food.

In 2006, the briefly lived website of Save Merry Christmas, an organization that advocated the odd practice of “celebrating Christmas in stores,” listed the names and contact information of 14 CEOs to whom they encouraged Christians to apply pressure. The CEOs’ names included Bern, Pressler, Rounick, Schaefer, Ulrich, Wexner, and Zimmer. Do I know which of them might be Jewish? No, and neither can anyone else easily tell, and that’s the point. No one should have been pressuring these individuals to affirm a Christian holiday.

When the AFA encouraged its eager boycotters to email Richard Schulze, founder of Best Buy, did they follow the AFA’s instructions without pausing to question Schulze’s background? (He’s Catholic. But did they ask?)

During Trump’s presidential campaign in 2015, he threatened to boycott Starbucks because its disposable coffee cups were insufficiently Christmasy. Starbucks was founded by Jews and had a Jewish CEO at the time.

What religion are the customers?

Often, they’re not Christian, either.

Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that only 59% of New York City metro area residents are Christian. That means, when strangers greet each other on the streets of New York, only one-third of those handshakes are between two Christians. It would be absurd for most New York companies to force employees to say “Merry Christmas” to customers, given those demographics. New Yorkers know better. And trying to make them do otherwise provides no benefit to Christians; it would only weaponize their holiday and simultaneously make a mockery of it.

The allegation of a ‘War on Christmas’ has overtly antisemitic roots

The suspicion of a conspiracy to steal Christianity back up the chimney historically has been overtly antisemitic. Automaker Henry Ford was blunt in his essay “The International Jew” (1921), a complaint about secularized Christmas and Easter cards in which he listed Jewish-led legal assaults on Christian prayer and celebrations in public schools. “The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and other Christian festivals, and their opposition to certain patriotic songs, shows the venom and directness of that attack,” Ford wrote.

Ford also complained that oaths of office weren’t preachy enough, and he blamed Jews for this: “No President of the United States has yet dared to take his inaugural oath on the open pages [emphasis mine] of the New Testament — the Jews would denounce him.” Presidents do take their oath of office on Christian Bibles that include the New Testament. Ford was manufacturing the allegation anti-Christian bias where there was no such bias.

Such prejudice survives today. For example, while claiming that atheists and agnostics raise the most objections to Christmas, the organization Boycott Watch says that the “original complaint” against Christmas was ascribed to Jews. Boycott Watch generalizes that “Jews recognize this is a Christian country.” (They assuredly do not.) Fox News political analyst Jim Pinkerton, for his part, dates the fictitious “War on Christmas” back to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1962 decision against prayer in public schools.

In the 21st century, one must know how to read the code: Liberals. Culture war. The subtitle to John Gibson’s War on Christmas (2005) referenced a “liberal plot.” More recently, in 2013, Bodie Hodge, who is associated with the creationist organization Answers in Genesis, published a book, War on Christmas: Battles in Faith, Tradition, and Religious Expression, whose description refers to Christmas as “ground zero in an ongoing culture war.” When you dig into the history, the true concerns reveal themselves.

Pretending that Christmas isn’t religious

On Dec. 3, 2004, Bill O’Reilly explained to a Jewish caller that Christmas “is a federal holiday honoring the philosopher Jesus.” This is disingenuous. “Christ” means “Messiah,” and “Mass” is a religious ritual, so the very name “Christmas” explains the holiday’s religious significance. Jesus isn’t primarily thought of as a philosopher. He didn’t even write anything. (To be fair, Socrates didn’t either, but Socrates is the exception that proves the rule about what qualifies someone as a philosopher.) Jesus is considered by Christians to be the Son of God. To many Christians — including, famously, C. S. Lewis, who I quote here — people have the option of denying or embracing his divinity, “but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher.”

Three years later, when Rabbi Adam Bernay asked O’Reilly, “What if a company is owned by Jews?,” O’Reilly answered that Christmas can be celebrated as a “federal holiday” without any ”religious connotation.” O’Reilly continued: “Nobody’s asking businesses to promote the divinity of Jesus. We’re just asking stores that profit from Christmas to acknowledge Christmas.”

O’Reilly’s strategy seemed to involve stripping Christmas of its religious content and converting it into a department store holiday. But why, then, does it matter how people acknowledge it? If Christmas isn’t about anything except taking December 25 off work as a government-recognized holiday for no particular reason or agenda, why can’t Americans just refer to it as “December 25"?

And since when does it matter how much a store profits from a holiday and how they choose to acknowledge what’s driving that phenomenon? Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day are also federal holidays, and they stimulate the purchase of barbecue supplies and picnic food on those specific summer weekends— so what?

Could this campaign be done differently?

Of course, if one really wants to promote Christian businesses, one could take the positive, friendly step of actually promoting Christian businesses. One doesn’t have to boycott non-Christian and secular businesses. Those who enjoy complaining about the existence of Jewish businesses reveal an ill-mannered and spiteful core of their campaign.

No, really, could it be done differently?

The homepage of the short-lived Save Merry Christmas explained their feelings as follows:

“Each Christmas season, every kind of decoration, advertising gimmick and sales promotion is directing the public to purchase their merchandise for the Christmas celebration…This deliberate and intentional substitution of ‘Merry Christmas’ with un-celebratory phrases are [sic] thoughtless, condescending and hurtful.”

It is a little weird to speak of celebrating Christmas in stores. Christians want profit-driven stores to pretend that overpriced coffeemakers and Barbie dolls have anything to do with the Messiah? It insults them when this doesn’t happen? They want to be associated with hyperstimulated shopping customs like that which led to the fatal trampling of a Wal-Mart employee in 2008? Is it some consolation to refer to “Christmas misbehavior” rather than “holiday misbehavior”?

Here’s an older, ostensibly more sincere pro-Christmas concern: Since the 1980s, the Knights of Columbus have had a “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign. They believe that, to preserve the religious meaning of the holiday, material gifts must not be given center stage.

To the extent that those who fuss over the nonexistent “War on Christmas” are focused, instead, on the health of department stores, their slogan ought to be “Keep Christmas in Kmart.” They want the lion’s share of audible references to Christmas to come from commercials rather than church? OK. It’s their religion; they get to decide what matters to them. As Adam Cohen’s 2005 New York Times opinion column announced: “Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They’re for it.” Fine, if that’s what they want. “It’s as though the ‘War on Christmas’ has become a rote observance, devoid of all its original spiritual meaning,” Jon Stewart joked in 2012.

The hours Americans devote to church attendance are considerably outstripped by those devoted to television and Internet. (Only one-third of Americans claim to attend church weekly, and people tend to overreport their church attendance, so the real number is likely much lower.) I’d wager that Americans spend more time on outrage porn alone than on organized religious services. So, yes, perhaps the cycle of outrage is what most Americans really want in the end.

Could people be more inclusive?

The Boston Globe’s editorial on Dec. 3, 2012 said that “the Christmas spirit is best expressed through charity, forgiveness, and merriment — not shouting from the bully pulpit or through a bullhorn.” The pro-inclusion people who are being shouted at, the Globe noted, “for the most part, just want to make sure everyone feels welcome during the holiday season.”

Religious proselytization

Politicians use Christmas to deliver religious messages: sometimes hostile, and sometimes conveying Christian social dominance.

In 2015, Wisconsin Rep. Scott Allen posted a Christmas message on the official “Wisconsin Assembly Republicans” YouTube channel, quoting the Bible as a warning that non-Christians will “shrink back“ and will be ”destroyed.”

In 2016, the Republican National Committee prepared a Christmas message: “Over two millennia ago, a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King.” Some questioned whether a political parallel to the newly elected U.S. President was intended.

White Christmas privilege

The insistence that one can use a word however one likes, in whatever context one likes, in conversation with whomever one likes, without regard to the accuracy or legality of the statement or anyone else’s feelings about it, is an assertion that one owns the public space.

Imagining and fighting in a “War on Christmas” turns Christmas into a symbol of power. It is an attempt to maintain a historically privileged status in framing national self-understanding and controlling dialogue. It seeks to end inclusive speech and replace it with exclusive speech so that non-Christians will remain “minorities.” It is about Christian privilege. In the US, that is mostly white Christian privilege.

The War on Christmas has had anti-Black as well as anti-Jewish manifestations. In 2013, Megyn Kelly of Fox News asserted “nonsensically that the fictional character of Santa Claus ‘just is White,’” Ebony Magazine wrote. Such antics reveal that “the imagined war on Christmas has,” in the minds of reactionaries, “become an equally farcical war on Whiteness.” Noting that ‘Duck Dynasty’ star Phil Robertson had recently been suspended from his TV show for saying that African Americans didn’t mind segregation, Ebony Magazine said that the same right-wing Christians fighting for

“their White Santa…could watch a ‘Duck Dynasty’ Christmas marathon on A&E, underscoring that there’s neither a war on Christmas nor on bigoted pseudo-Christians like Robertson. But there’s a lot of cash to be made, and fear to be stoked, by claiming both.”

Or, as David Kyle Johnson explained:

“…when Megyn Kelly insists that Santa is, and should remain, white, she plays a part in the fight for white social dominance, even though she is just, as [comedian] Jon Stewart put it, ‘expressing anger and victimization over the loss of absolute power and reframing it as persecution of real America by minorities, freeloaders and socialists’…”

“Cancel culture” is the term currently used to signal fear of public criticism for saying something deemed inappropriate. It is not political incorrectness, but the consequences thereof; one is “canceled” when one receives backlash for being offensive or ignorant. The expressed fear of this backlash, as Michael Hobbes wrote in July 2020, is a “repackaging” of the fear that “overly sensitive college students and random social media users” are a danger to liberalism. “It is no more sophisticated than the ‘war on Christmas’ and has the same goal: to imply that those pushing back against injustice are equivalent to the injustice itself.”

Don’t feed this campaign

That’s everything I know about the War on Christmas, which is a lot to know about something that is based on nonsense.

But it affects people’s lives. In 2020, Nick Robins-Early writes, “the stakes are actually incredibly high.” Conservative media now claim that public health measures aimed at controlling the spread of a highly contagious virus are really primarily intended to cancel family holiday celebrations. One talk show host accused powerful people of having “figured out that Christmas is bigger than they are, and therefore, it’s a threat to them. Better cancel it.” The anxiety was expressed about Thanksgiving, too, as social distancing measures had also affected that holiday a month earlier. Fox News host Sean Hannity referred to a “war on Thanksgiving” while the Daily Wire’s Matt Walsh tweeted: “We’ve been worried about the War on Christmas but the Dems just snuck in the side entrance and canceled Thanksgiving instead.”

Especially this year, please follow public health guidance so your relatives and friends don’t infect each other with the illness that’s going around.

Within that parameter, celebrate the holidays you believe in, enjoy your traditions, and let others have theirs.

Written by

Writing on dignity, democracy, and the pursuit of truth. Author: ‘Ten Past Noon: Focus and Fate at Forty’

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