As this column is written, the seasonal aisle at Kmart has Halloween merchandise, but Christmas promotions are starting to turn up in the mail. And if Christmastime is coming, then the war on the war on Christmas can’t be far behind. In fact, it will be raging by the time you read this.
It all started last year with the publication of a book (The War on Christmas, by Fox News anchor John Gibson) that was endlessly hyped and cross-promoted by right-wing talk-show hosts and Christian Right fundraisers. From a few examples of nativity scenes pulled from schools and the spread of the omnipresent and offensively bland greeting “Happy Holidays,” conservative culture warriors conjured the specter of a conspiracy to cancel Christmas in favor of a secular, generic “winter holiday.”
The 24-7 media hammer banged “the war on Christmas” into the mid-American brain. By mid-December it had achieved the status of an urban legend. I heard it several times, from ordinary people, in several different contexts. “You know, you’re not allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas’ anymore. It’s not politically correct. You could be sued.” I confess to having made myself obnoxious last year by insisting, with prosecutorial fervor, that near-strangers identify to me the times they personally had been denied the right to say “Merry Christmas.” Of course, they hadn’t. But the facts don’t matter when this sort of juggernaut gets rolling. The point of such myth-making is to create imaginary facts that are just as useful as real ones. And the “war on Christmas” is now one of them.
It takes no gift of prophecy for me to see the war on the war on Christmas heating up even from the relative warmth of September. In fact, it started way back in June when the American Family Association (AFA)—the Christian Right group that, among other things, operates a nationwide chain of radio stations—announced that it would begin notifying retailers that they better not be caught selling “holiday trees” or any other such apostasy. In August, AFA fired a public relations blast at Wal-Mart over a Sam’s Club ad for Christmas merchandise that used the word “holiday” in place of “Christmas.” And the rest is, or will be, this year’s history.
As imaginary facts go, the “war on Christmas” is an especially useful one for its opponents. For one thing, it gives Religious Right fundraising a boost at a time of year when people might be tempted to give extra quarters to the Salvation Army Santa. But even more important, the “war on Christmas” serves to keep the fires of resentment roaring among the faithful, untempered by any seasonal mushiness about universal good will.
I confess to being of two minds on this subject. “Happy holidays” really is a deceptive euphemism. It’s been a long time since business closed for the winter solstice. In historically Christian 21st-century America, the other December holidays, while meaningful for their participants, owe their existence to the proximity of Christmas. Hanukkah was a relatively minor event on the Jewish religious calendar until it was elevated to provide a cultural alternative to the omnipresent Christian feast. The recent invention of the African heritage celebration Kwanzaa also occurred as a way to piggyback on the pre-existing Christmas season. It confuses cause and effect to jam these celebrations under the same umbrella as Christmas and pretend that they all bear equal cultural heft.
The “war on Christmas” works so well for the Right because global corporations, mainstream media, and liberal educators do tend to promote a flattened-out secular relativism. And that is offensive to people in particular places that hold to a particular faith—whether it is Islam in Pakistan or Christianity in the rural South. I can understand the anger that provokes. But I’m not sure that Christianity is served very well by becoming just another special-interest group demanding its rights. America has enough of those already.
And, in the end, “happy holidays” doesn’t offend me nearly so much as having one of the major events of the church year associated with that mad orgy of debt-fueled consumption that has taken over the months of November and December. Frankly, I’d rather they name that holiday something else, let Disney trademark the new title, and leave poor Jesus out of it entirely.
Danny Duncan Collum, a Sojourners contributing writer and author of Black and Catholic in the Jim Crow South, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.