It's only mid-November, but the war over Christmas is already in full swing, at least over on Fox News. All of the past week, Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson (who is plugging a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought) have been beating the alarm about Grinches on the march. The clerks at Wal-Mart say "Happy Holidays!" The horror!
The Christmas Wars seem to have become a regular feature of the Christmas season (see my columns from 2004 and 2003), and they're not getting any better.
Now, I agree that there have been some silly, pettily intolerant "politically correct" attempts to get even secular Christmas images (Santas, reindeer, decorated/illuminated trees) out of public places. I'm a Jewish agnostic, and I think it's absurd that some public schools have banned even instrumental versions of Christmas carols. I can understand why people are ticked off about it. But this "war on Christmas" stuff is pretty ridiculous too. Even Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review sounded a tad skeptical when she interviewed Gibson.
For one thing, it's depressing, and annoying, to see conservative Christians borrow the worst page from the playbook of the politically correct left, sign up for the victimology sweepstakes, and join the ranks of the perpetually aggrieved. (It's particularly unseemly coming from the majority, in a country where a non-believer has a snowball's chance in hell of getting elected to high political office, for example.) I'm not saying anti-Christian slurs ought to be tolerated, but to get offended over a store clerk's "Happy Holidays" greeting or a "Season's Greetings" sign is as petty as getting offended by the phrase "the brotherhood of man." And no, I'm not saying that a non-Christian ought to be offended by "Merry Christmas" -- it's silly to make an issue of it either way -- but what on earth is wrong with retailers wanting to be a little more inclusive? It's nonsense to say that "happy holidays" somehow "excludes" those who celebrate Christmas (unless, as Julian Sanchez quipped in Reason last year, Christmas is "neither happy nor a holiday"). If a major retailer stopped selling Christmas cards or religiously themed holiday decorations, or if a customer got thrown out of a store for wishing a clerk or a fellow customer "merry Christmas," that would be exclusion. And if that ever happened, I'd be the first to jump on the O'Reilly-Gibson bandwagon.
By the way, at the height of the "Christmas under attack" brouhaha last year, President Bush held a press conference during which he wished everyone "happy holidays" twice, and didn't say "Merry Christmas" even once. See how indisious those Christmas-hating liberals are? They've even recruited Bush!
The "war on Christmas" complaints echo a leftist mindset in another way. The assumption is that everything worthwhile, everything important to us, must somehow be validated by the government. It's not enough to have nativity scenes in front of churches and homes; they have to be in front of City Hall as well. If a public school calls the Christmas break a "winter break," it's the end of Christmas. What happened to that whole "render unto Caesar" thing, anyway? And it seems to me (admittedly, speaking as a non-Christian) that expecting one's sacred holiday to be validated by Macy's or Sears is just as odd as expecting it to be validated by the state. Once upon a time, Christians complained about the commercialization of Christmas. Now, the complaint is that the centers of commerce aren't trivializing Christmas enough. And while we're at it, let's not forget that until the mid-19th Century, Christmas celebrations in America were small and private, and a lot of American Christians were wary of the holiday, which they regarded as having pagan overtones. Modern Christmas, as the website of that notorious left-liberal institution, the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, puts it, is a creation of "materialism, media, advertising, and mass marketing." It's a huge holiday, by the way, in some non-Christian societies such as Japan.
Here in America, non-Christians live in a predominantly Christian society, and they have to respect that. Getting annoyed because your co-workers are exchanging Christmas gifts is stupid and mean-spirited. But if it's obnoxious for minorities to demand that the majority cater to their tender sensibitilies, it's even more obnoxious for the majority to assertively proclaim its dominance. It's hardly in the spirit of Christmas to effectively tell minorities, "This is our place, and you're only here on our sufferance." But I get the feeling that this exactly what O'Reilly and Gibson want, with their talk of a Christian "supermajority" of 86%. (Actually, some polls suggest that it's more like 76%.) A hypersensitive supermajority is not a pretty sight.
As a secularist who loves Christmas, it saddens me to see it politicized. A major share of the blame does lie with a small group of secularist zealots who think the separation of church and state is threatened when a kid in a public school sings "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." But right now, it's the self-appointed champions of Christmas who are leading a campaign of hysterical overreaction. (Yesterday, Gibson wrapped up his Christmas segment by announcing, "By the way, O'Reilly will have a complete investigation into the Christmas policies at all major discount stores on Tuesday." For heaven's sake, is that really the most pressing issue facing the country today? Or even one of the most pressing?) I've never had a problem with "Happy Holidays," "Season's Greetings," "Merry Christmas," or "Happy Hanukkah." Now I have to wonder if the store clerk who says either "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas" is making some kind of statement.
Can't we all get along? And no less important, can't we all lighten up?