Five Yuletide Battlegrounds
Dispatches from the War on Christmas
You’ve no doubt heard that there’s a war on Christmas. It’s being fought principally across five arenas: the sidewalk, the market, the statehouse, the schoolhouse, and the media. Here are a few of the most recent dispatches from the front lines.
It was on a sidewalk outside a Phoenix, Arizona Wal-Mart that Kristina Vindiola was physically assaulted for using a holiday greeting. Before she was punched for her greeting, her assailant demanded that Vindiola confess her belief in God.
Even more than belief, though, it was the public venue at stake. In calling the sidewalk one of the theaters of the war on Christmas, we’re really talking about the whole range of casual social interactions, from how we dress to the way we acknowledge one another in passing. Vindiola was attacked not for her religion, but for saying “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas”; her assailant, a woman in her 60s, was fighting to force another person to use specifically Christian terms in public.
How did Vindiola find herself on the field of battle? At the time, she was ringing a bell for the Salvation Army, a Christian charity that positions its volunteers—many of them dressed as Santa Claus—in heavily trafficked public places, the better to collect charitable donations. Which is to say, that the skirmish outside that Pheonix Wal-Mart was fought on territory that had already been well and thoroughly occupied by the forces of Christmas.
As Black Friday sales creep steadily back each calendar year, the start of the holidays is increasingly associated not with religious observance, but with blockbuster deals and shopping casualties. Many people are dismayed to find materialism eclipsing religious values.
Because holiday sales are so important to the GDP, it’s not unusual to see factions in the war on Christmas exerting financial pressure to win concessions from retailers. One such group recently campaigned to force Gap and its associated brands to change their holiday advertising. The American Family Association declared their boycott of the brand a success after Old Navy released a commercial wishing its customers a “Merry Christmas.”
What did the AFA accomplish by its apparent victory? They may have been trying to coax a retailer into spreading a religious message, but what they’ve really done is convince it to make advertisements targeted specifically at the Christmas faithful. In doing so, they have ensured that references to the birth of the central figure of Christianity will be used to help sell cargo pants and print tees.
The Founding Fathers knew from first-hand experience how dangerous it could be to subject a person’s religious conscience to the dictates of the state. They enshrined religious protections in the First Amendment as a tool for those who worry that the institutions of governance might be used to encroach on each citizen’s right to practice their own faith.
So it’s disappointing to see Lincoln Chafee cave to government pressure, including a resolution apparently passed to chide him into conformity. In 2011, the legislature in Rhode Island passed a “Resolution Respecting Christmas Trees” [PDF], requiring state officials, like Governor Chafee, to use specified language when referring to the tree annually erected in the Statehouse. This year, Chafee relented and called it a “Christmas tree” rather than a “holiday tree.”
Chafee’s express reason for preferring “holiday tree” was to avoid the appearance of discrimination against the state’s non-Christian population, which amounts to more than 25% of the state. “If it’s in my house it’s a Christmas tree,” the Governor told reporters, “but when I’m representing all of Rhode Island I have to be respectful of everyone.” In diverting taxpayer money toward an legislative effort apparently aimed at forcing one man to act against his own conscience, the Rhode Island House eroded a liberty that was instituted to protect citizens of all religious faiths, including Christians.
The concerns that fuel the war in the statehouse often carry over into public schools as well. There, the stakes are elevated by the specter of indoctrination and heightened fears of running afoul of religious sensibilities.
Thus we find legislators in Georgia, Louisiana, Oklahoma [DOC] and Texas all filing bills to protect the right to use holiday greetings in schools. Such laws would protect students, like 9-year-old San Francisco native Timothy Dawson, who was reportedly suspended for saying “Merry Christmas” to his homeroom teacher.
Only after angry would-be Christmas defenders across the country flooded the very real Argonne Elementary School with complaints was it revealed that both Timothy Dawson and his suspension were a hoax. There do not appear to be any cases of teachers or students facing disciplinary action for issuing personal Christmas greetings, but that has not stopped high-minded legislators from writing bills to protect rights that are already Constitutionally guaranteed. In doing so, they politicize children’s educations and fuel the paranoia that leads to disruptive overreactions like those that wasted the time and energy of employees at Argonne Elementary.
Odds are good that you’ve already heard those stories, or some like them. That’s because portions of the news media have dedicated themselves to covering the war on Christmas. Nearly 10 years ago, Bill O’Reilly sounded the first alarms for a generation of concerned citizens, and has maintained consistently high levels of coverage. Much of the reporting since then has been handled by his Fox News compatriot Todd Starnes.
It was, for example, Starnes who drew attention to a Georgia elementary school where administrators confiscated a poster bearing student-made Christmas cards. With a national audience backing it, the report drew an avalanche of righteous protest against administrators who would restrict their student’s constitutionally protected religious expression. Starnes, Fox and an underground force of political news sites routinely issue such rallying calls, directing a small legion of resistance fighters to the latest front in the battle to protect Christmas.
Of course, the justice of a resistance campaign suffers when the report is false—as, it turns out, the report on the confiscated Christmas cards was. Other Christmas stories Starnes has reported on for Fox have been subject to similar corrections, which doesn’t seem to have encouraged him to subject them to even the most basic journalistic verification before he pulls the trigger on a story. The policy in war, as in yellow journalism, is to shoot first and ask questions later.
There is a war on Christmas, but contrary to reports, it’s being fought largely by certain Christians who clothe themselves in the mantle of piety. Believing they have something to gain from forcing everyone to celebrate the holidays on their terms, they’ve made themselves oblivious to the damage they do to the religious meaning and spirit of the holiday.
They angrily accost strangers on the sidewalk in hopes of commanding the public square for a religion of love. They berate retailers to acknowledge religion, and thereby further the association of the holiday with crass consumerism. The laws they draft contribute to the same atmosphere that originally inspired their religious forebears to seek liberty in the New World. They disrupt the education of their children by throwing additional burdens on already taxed schools to protect a largely unchallenged right. They make collateral damage of other Christians, like Kristina Vindiola, Lincoln Chafee and many of the teachers and administrators of the school districts they besiege. And so that no one forgets what’s at stake, they spread politically-charged misinformation across the air waves and Internet.
Nothing prevents them from observing their own traditions at home, with friends or in church, from wishing whomever they’d like a merry Christmas, from singing carols or talking about Jesus. They fight not to preserve the right to practice their own faith, but rather to preserve the precious illusion—rendered in Christmas lights and courthouse nativity scenes—that everyone else does as well.