A Holiday Confession
My life as a fake Internet “War on Christmas” meme
Many people contend that Thanksgiving is the official kickoff of the holiday season. Others believe that it commences with the first spins of the Phil Spector Christmas album. Some initiate the countdown when the massive tree arrives at Rockefeller Center. More recently, people have started thinking of Yuletide when Starbucks brews Gingerbread Lattes.
I now have my own Christmas alert: a steady trickle of emails such as this:
Mr. Levy: I want to personally thank you for having the courage to share this with the world. Outstanding commentary and so true. You hit it right on the money. . . I thank Jesus every day for my life. Thank you again. We need more loving and thoughtful people in this world such as you.
These have been popping up with increasing frequency in my end-of-year inbox. Some are brief thank-yous. Others come on as if their writers have known me all my life, better than the people who actually do know me. All of them are appreciative.
And a few wonder whether I am actually the real author of “My Confession,” a deranged rant about the “War on Christmas” widely circulated on email chains and websites including “Anglican Mainstream,” “Box of Chocolates,” and “Celebrities for Christ.”
The answer is no. Even though the message describes the writer as the tech journalist Steven Levy. Even though untold thousands have shared a version via email that is accompanied by my old Wikipedia picture. Even though one of the more popular websites that carries the screed — and there are a bunch of them—describes itself as “providing you with trustworthy news and information.”
No. I did not go on CBS Sunday Morning to express my rage at the White House for calling its annual fir a “holiday tree.” I did not say, “I don’t like getting pushed around for being a Jew and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians.”
I did not contend that the Founding Fathers embraced the concept of Christian doctrine in public schools. I did not launch an attack on Madeline Murray O’Hair in particular, and atheists in general, for opposing prayer in schools. Nor did I imply that she had what was coming to her when she was murdered.
I did not impugn Doctor Spock for telling people not to spank their children, and I certainly don’t think that his son committed suicide because of insufficient corporal punishment. Nor do I think that if we hit our kids more often and more lustily, the murder rate would drop.
In short, I had nothing to do with this, although in the minds of I don’t know how many people — and I suspect it’s a lot — I have everything to do with it. The list apparently included my stepfather-in-law, who once forwarded me an email in the chain without comment. Judging from the subject line he also forwarded it to a bunch of his friends. This was one of the versions with my picture on it.
I have become somewhat of a scholar regarding the various versions
of “My Confession.”
Serial circulators have seen fit to alter it to their tastes, excising or appending certain passage, evolving it in the mode of an Appalachian ballad or a Greek epic poem. There are probably more variations to it than the text of one of Shakespeare’s tragedies.
When I sought to find the origin of this missive, the answer came unexpectedly quickly. “My Confession” has been sufficiently circulated to get its own vetting by self-appointed referees of digital hogwash like snopes.com and truthorfiction.com. It was at Snopes that I learned a bit about the tiny germ of truth that grew out of control on the Net.
It began, indeed, on CBS Sunday Morning News on the 18th of December in 2005. The guest was not yours truly but actor Ben Stein, apparently occupying the Andy Rooney “get-off-my-lawn” chair. Host Charles Osgood teed him up by offering him a chance to share some holiday thoughts, and Stein launched into a heated invective about a seasonally themed People magazine cover with Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson. Actually, he didn’t know their last names, but he was outraged that People magazine thought he should. He didn’t care about Nick and Jessica, he exclaimed, nor did he care about Tom Cruise’s baby. Even if he were hauled before a Congressional subcommittee and called a subversive, he wouldn’t back down on this.
Now that Stein had a head of steam, he uttered the word that would later be circulated under my name, about not liking being pushed around as a Jew and not liking Christians being pushed around.
He volunteered that, despite his religion, he didn’t mind people referring to their bejeweled firs as Christmas trees, nor did he mind a manger on public display near his beach home in Malibu. He also gave a mention that the Constitution didn’t favor atheists (skating past that part about “no establishment of religion”), and announced that he was sick of atheists being shoved down his throat — just like People magazine was shoving Nick and Jessica down his throat? And why are we allowed to worship Nick and Jessica in America and not God? What’s happened to America?
I’m not exaggerating. The former Nixon speechwriter who played the boring teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off really said that stuff on national television, before cable news made such rants commonplace. You can read the transcript in the Snopes account.
At one point in history outbursts such as this were viewed and quickly forgotten. But Stein’s rant was transcribed and circulated, at least as widely as possible before Facebook’s News Feed appeared. And thus people began to tinker with it. The Snopes investigation (why haven’t those people won a Pulitzer?) discovered that some additional material — the O’Hare and Spock stuff — came from a TV appearance on the CBS Early Show by Billy Graham’s daughter, about Hurricane Katrina. When the host asked her, “How could this happen?” she attributed the weather disaster to atheists opposing school prayer and Dr. Spock’s advice not to hit our kids.
Naturally, this was a perfect addition to the Stein rant. Kudos to the anonymous genius who figured that out. Later, after reports (inaccurate, as it turns out) that in 2009 the Obamas eschewed the term “Christmas tree,” that nonexistent insult was cited as the impetus for the confession.
What I cannot track is just where and when Ben Stein’s name dropped out and mine replaced it. All I know is that at some more recent point — probably at the tail end of last season— I started getting emails from grateful readers of something I never wrote, and when I Google my name and “War on Christmas,” weird things show up. And that the email chain is unbroken. Probably as you read this some number of people are clicking on it and vowing to pass it on to their friends.
What can I do about it? Basically, nothing. The Internet is a vast lawn with billions of mole-holes. You can’t whack a problem like this away.
This year has been a tough one for the Internet. We haven’t recovered from the Snowden revelations. Some truly odious computer malefactors have stolen all of Sony’s corporate files — perhaps in an attempt to kill a cinematic satire of one of the world’s most dreadful despots? — and have enlisted willing journalists to trumpet the gaffes and intrigues within. The lesson is that probably every secret we express on the Internet — and some secrets we don’t — is prone to exposure. Just ask Jennifer Lawrence. And the shameful hazing of just about any female who dares express an opinion on Twitter continues.
In comparison, my own little gripe is inconsequential. Even kind of funny. A little.
I do try to dispel the myth, with small and futile gestures. When people write to thank me for eloquently expressing a sentiment they believe in, I politely let them know it wasn’t me. I refrain from letting them know the extent to which my own heart and mind differs from theirs. Sometimes I slip; when they conflate the message I did not deliver with an animus towards our president, I let them know I voted for the guy and don’t regret it.
And then sometimes there are letters like the one I got today. A self-described “old” woman wrote that she appreciated my comments, save for one point — my insistence (which I never insisted on, but she didn’t know) that religion be reintroduced in schools. She was orphaned as a child, she explained, and placed in a Catholic institution where nuns forced a strict doctrine on her and forced her to pray in words that meant very little to her. It was painful to be told that the teachings of her parents and other adults in her culture were wrong. She almost came to hate religion. Later, however, she did adopt a Christian core of belief. This, she explained, was confirmed by an experience she had later in life as a professional:
I was stationed alone in a country where Christianity is forbidden and punishable. I was a little sad but was used to that. On Christmas Eve someone knocked and when I opened the door a high level official from that country stood there with his hand behind his back. After the usual formal greetings, I waited with a questioning look and he produced a lovely miniature Christmas tree. My reflex was to step back. I guess he expected this because he smiled and reassured me it was not a trap. He know I was alone while working his country and he felt I deserved this small gift on my special day.
I might have been alone in the house that Christmas but I did not feel lonely. I followed my star and had become a citizen of the world. It was a wonderful feeling in a not so wonderful life. I wish this to everyone.
To that email, I did not give my standard denial. Let the Paris orphan think she had reached a kindred soul. Maybe more kindred than she knew. My own holiday gift to her — straight from my little Jewish enclave in Greenwich Village — is silence.
Happy holiday, everyone!