Saturday, November 12, 2005

The Christmas Wars: God help us, everyone

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?


Dean said...

And no less important, can't we all lighten up?

I suspect not. The subtext of the 'attack on Christmas' is that it's those damn commie libruls that are behind it, and as we all know, the libruls are traitors and out to destroy America because they hate it.

On the other hand, conservatives are Nazis who hate minorities and want a Christian theocracy where they are free to run around oppressing women and black people.

More and more over the last few years I've noticed people self-identifying as either liberal or conservative, and if you identify with one side then you pretty much have to accept all of the tenets of that side: liberals oppose the war, favour legalized abortion, oppose prayer in schools, etc.

I don't know what the cause is, but American politics has looked more and more polarized over the last ten or fifteen years.

Anonymous said...

humm, a very interesting take on the christmas battle.

i agree.

and why do we have to use the most fowl language we can think of to talk about other americans? yes i am considered extreemly right winged. but i think we can have debates and arguements in an intellegent mannor without the name calling.

Anonymous said...

It has nothing to do with 'leftist thinking' and everything to do with a sense of entitlement, topped with a desire to make everybody else fall in line.

Of course, you will never see O'Reilly et al come out and say "We want the damn Jews to shut up about Christmas", but that's pretty much what they're dancing around.

and I think it's absurd that some public schools have banned even instrumental versions of Christmas carols

If you knew the lyrics to those carols, you might feel differently. "Jingle Bells" is not exactly the same as "God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen".

Anonymous said...

Great post - that's why I read this blog.

Anonymous said...

My parents are conservative Christians, but we always celebrated Christmas as a secular holiday, not a religious one; their church felt that Christmas (as a religious holiday) was one of those awful Catholic/pagan add-ons that they strove to avoid. Speaking as a liberal agnostic, I've always found both sides of the holiday tussle silly. I don't care if City Hall has a Nativity scene! Happy Holidays is a nice, shorthand way of getting Hannukkah/Christmas/New Year's wishes all in one. Let's all have some eggnog and relax!


Cathy Young said...

mythago -- you don't think that a "sense of entitlement" is present in certain kinds of leftist thinking, as well?

In my view, the "war on Christmas" hysteria is kind of an amalgam of traditionalist "this is our country and we don't want those outsiders dictating to us" entitlement, and "we're a minority whose sensibilities must be protected" victim mentality. Remember, conservative evangelicals are a minority and to some extent they are quite marginalized by popular culture, which treats their social values as quaint and retrograde.

Snowe, good comment! I'm another agnostic Christmas fan. And by the way, I know for a fact that there are conservative Christians who don't celebrate Christmas and regard it as a pagan holiday -- a few people I know have told me that about their relatives.

Cathy Young said...

mythago, forgot to reply about the Christmas carols. If we're talking about instrumental performances, does it really matter if the lyrics (which most of the kids probably don't know) are sectarian? If the kids had to sing the songs with those lyrics that would be totally different, of course.

Anonymous said...

Speaking as a practising Christian myself, I must say there are idiots on both sides of the spectrum when it comes to Christmas.

Regarding the celebration of Christmas, in the past many Protestant churches didn't celebrate it because they thought it reeked of "papism" (i.e. the hated Roman Catholicism). As well, theologically speaking, Easter is a much more important holiday than Christmas (after all, anybody can be born, but how many people have been resurrected from the dead?). Easter even today is a bigger holiday in some countries, like Italy, where my mother is from, than Christmas. The big irony is that Jesus probably was not born anywhere near December 25. Scholars think he was probably born some time in the summer. December 25 was chosen as the date because it coincided with the Roman feast of Saturnalia and so Christians wouldn't feel obligated to give up the fun stuff if they left their old religion behind. Also, many Christian symbols, such as the mistletoe, etcetera, had pagan origins.

I doubt people like Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson know these facts about Christmas. If they did, do you think they would give up on the holiday?

Emilia Liz (

Anonymous said...

"[...]as petty as getting offended by the phrase 'the brotherhood of man.'"

I don't know; I get annoyed by phrases like that. Saying "the sibling-hood of humanity" is simply more accurate, and it's not as if it requires any neologisms...

Probably off-topic. I'm such a bad commenter.

Cathy Young said...

the sibling-hood of humanity

You have to admit that "the brotherhood of man" sounds somewhat more poetic, though. ;)

Anonymous said...

The real issue with the O'Reilly view that it perpetuates the second-grader view of representative democracy (Majority Rules! Majority Rules!) that allows otherwise reasonable voters to accept that every current majority preference should be enacted into law.

That view ignores the importance of limited government and promotes the tyranny of the majority - both critical features of the American system, despite waning influence.

Anonymous said...


Another atheist here who loves eggnog! I like Christmas, too, and, ironically, I've been verbally attacked by Christians for that. They have actually gotten mad at me for being a non-Christian who celebrates Christmas with my Christian family. Apparently, by enjoying the secular aspects of Christmas (the giving and sharing, the tree, etc), I am undermining its Christian roots, which is something akin to blasphamy.

Really. You can't win with these people. They don't want to get along with you. They just want you to convert. Apparently, by exhaling non-Christian CO2, you are a threat to their faith.


Anonymous said...

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.

I don't think that's really a leftist mindset. Leftists of varying stripes often think that important things have to be protected by the government, but that's different from (different than? I'm never sure which) being validated by the government. Seeking government validation is much more a rightist habit, seen most clearly in the outrage when the government moves to take down a 10 Commandments plaque, or declines to have teacher-led prayer in school or to teach ID.

Also, surely a Fox Newsperson isn't really plugging a book entitled "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought" - I mean, that's too much. It's straight out of a post by Fafnir or Giblets. The Sacred Christian Holiday - man, when you have to hit people over the head like that, they must not be buying what you're selling.... Not to mention that Good Friday and Easter are the true sacred holidays for actual Christians.

Anonymous said...

I find both sides of the issue to be rather silly. It is certainly true that there is a movement to remove religious references from public institutions (and those private ones with a overly public visibility). But that is niether shocking (they are secular institutions after all) or particularly impacting on me. Our Christmas celebration is a family affair. So far, no government or private party has tried to force us to say "happy holidays" within our family get together. So, all is well.

Regarding carols in schools - I continue to be amazed, (and pleased), that our school district still performs many religious (not only Christian but predominantely so) selections in their choir and band concerts. And this is not some little "Extreme Right Wing" conclave in the barren wilderness. Ours is the third largest school district in MN behind Minneapolis and St Paul. Thankfully, for some reason, the ACLU hasn't noticed yet.

Regarding the actual date of Jesus' birth: most analysis I have read, based primarily on Elizabeth's pregnancy, the timing of Zachariah's priestly duties and Mary's corresponding visit, place the birth in the fall at the feast of Tabernacles.

Anonymous said...

I am actually an atheist in the sense that I do not believe in ANY human-created version of "God," or a "Supreme Being" or any other conceptualized projection of our inherent wish for a parental-type omnipotent guardian. I do however believe that Jesus Christ(who wrote not a word of the New Testament - it was an account written by simple humans 300+ years after Jesus' death)was an enlightened man and I absolutely LOVES Christmas because I think it is one of the few celebrations we have left in this nation which actually uplifts people's SPIRITS rather than their battle-cries and their egos.I do not exchange presents however, simply because I am by nature a virtual non-consumer. I hate shopping, but I love Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Christmas decorations - everything Christmas. I think most Christians are completely whack, but that doesn't mean I'm going to let them spoil the manner and spirit with which I celebrate ANY thing. I simply choose not to be offended by freaks.

Cathy Young said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone.

To the last anonymous: I'd greatly appreciate it if posters here refrained from slurs (such as "freaks") against any groups, including religious people.

Anonymous said...

"You have to admit that 'the brotherhood of man' sounds somewhat more poetic, though. ;) "

In this particular case I don't think so, but I know what you mean. I have tried to imagine neutering one of my favorite poems: Matthew Arnold's "The Buried Life", and it's worse than impossible--"A human becomes aware of his or her life's flow"? It just doesn't work...

It may not entirely be a coincidence that my most favorite poem uses the plural.

Cathy Young said...

Wow -- beautiful poem, zack.

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