Every year around this time I have to see Bill O’Reilly’s big bloated head pointed directly down the barrel of his rage-capture cam shouting about the ‘war on Christmas.' Companies aren’t letting their employees say Merry Christmas, they don’t use the word Christmas in any of their advertising, they won’t keep Christ in Christmas, they hate Christmas, and they hate America. He goes on and on.
But not this year. Apparently, the war on Christmas is over. With the election of President Trump, who O’Reilly credits with taking up the torch for Christmas, and the concerted efforts of the American Family Association (AFA) there has been a re-Christmasing. A joyous return to values of yore where, finally, Christmas is held deeply in the heart of corporations and citizens alike.
Then again, it’s pretty easy to declare a win in a war that you created.
The war on Christmas was a fabrication, a blatant lie, spread by Fox News and trumpeted by Christian organizations like the AFA to arouse the ire of Christian voters and consumers. It is the exact vitriol of fear and cultural preservation that has deluded so many Americans over the past decade, it’s what sells Bill O’Reilly’s books and keeps good “God-fearing” folks in office.
It started in 1999 in the notebook of anti-immigration activist Peter Brimelow. He posited that the rising percentage of non-Christian migrants was bad for America, in that their arrival would sow seeds of dissent and threaten the rights of Christians to practice in the United States. He said that Christmas would be the first holiday to go. Brimelow was largely ignored. That is until 2005 when John Gibson published the epically paranoid The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought and appeared on the O’Reilly Factor to plug it. The basic thrust of his argument is that there is a vast conspiracy of liberals who are trying to remove religion from society. The emblem of this conspiracy was an innocuous phrase that was leaking into the zeitgeist and poisoning American society: Happy Holidays.
According to Gibson, ‘Happy Holidays’ was the thin edge of a wedge designed to separate religion from politics and to fully secularize society. It was a plot to get Christ out of Christmas, and it had to be stopped. This was the same line spouted by Fox News for ten consecutive years culminating in this year’s announcement that the war on Christmas had been won (coincidentally the year that Roger Ailes was forced to step down as Chairman and CEO of the network due to charges of sexual harassment.)
I take issue with a couple of points here. Foremost is that Christmas has never been stronger in America. This year, the average American will spend $830 on gifts alone. Of Americans polled by the Pew Research Centre, 92% said they would be celebrating Christmas this year. That’s compared to 96% of Christians who said they would be celebrating. 81% of Americans of other faiths said they would be celebrating on December 25th. So, understandably, I’m confused as to where this crushing liberal onslaught on Christmas is. To clarify: these people said they would be celebrating Christmas, not ‘the holidays.'
Another problem is the notion that saying ‘Happy Holidays’ somehow negates Christmas. It doesn’t. It just acknowledges that the person you’re speaking to might celebrate something other than Christmas or, as the research above shows, something in addition to Christmas. People say ‘Happy Holidays’ because it’s more economical than saying ‘Merry Christmas which you are statistically likely to celebrate in conjunction with whatever other personal observances you may honor at this time of year.’ It has nothing to do with secularization and everything to do with inclusion. Some people celebrate different things, and it’s polite to acknowledge that. Also, just as a fun fact, 46% of Americans do not care how they are greeted during the Christmas season. That’s compared to 42% who prefer ‘Merry Christmas’ and 12% who prefer ‘Happy Holidays’…so, you know, a majority.
And finally, the Christ in Christmas conundrum. Aside from the provision in the first amendment about freedom from religion - which pretty much settles the nativity-scenes-in-government-buildings argument – the AFA and Fox News seem most upset that corporations are trying to remove Christmas from their branding on religious grounds.
But, Christ has never been a major player in the American approach to Christmas. That’s not to say that people’s personal observances are not founded in faith, (about 65% of Americans believe in the Christmas narrative as recorded in the Bible) but that faith has never played a major role in the public celebration of Christmas. Traditionally, devout faith prevented a celebration of Christmas in America. As late as 1870, school was in session on Christmas and people went to work. Christmas was viewed as a pagan festival that glorified excess and gluttony. And that’s not entirely untrue.
When we boil it down, Christmas is about money in the United States. It is about spending to show friends and relations that we can afford to give gifts. The most universally accepted symbol of Christmas is a bizarre old man in a red snow suit, a kind of Scandinavian Zeus mashup who dispenses presents, not rosaries or bibles. We decorate trees with balls and lights, like ancient Romans used to. It is the secular nature of Christmas that has given it such mass appeal. People like getting presents and wearing ugly sweaters, and whether you ground that in religion or not appears to matter very little in contemporary culture.
So, when Bill O’Reilly and the president-elect say that the war on Christmas has been won, take a minute to reflect on how little that really means.