[ If Christmas creep continues to expand Christmas into September while Christmas becomes a time when people are at war with people... then more and more of our time will be spent fighting each other.... over Christmas. This is quite different from my childhood, when Christmas meant peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Oh, by the way, they have re-translated that to "on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests." That sort of explains it, doesn't it? Yet obviously, those fighting the Christmas wars are not at peace.]
A Short History of the War on Christmas
How everyone from Bill O’Reilly to Jon Stewart became a co-conspirator in an annual farce.
By DANIEL DENVIR
December 16, 2013
Henry Ford was an avid proponent of the idea that someone—or more precisely, some group—was waging a war on Christmas.
“Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone's Birth,” according to The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem, a widely distributed set of anti-Semitic articles published in the automobile magnate’s newsweekly during the 1920s. “People sometimes ask why 3,000,000 Jews can control the affairs of 100,000,000 Americans. In the same way that ten Jewish students can abolish the mention of Christmas and Easter out of schools containing 3,000 Christian pupils.”
In 1959, it was the far-right John Birch Society that published a pamphlet alerting the nation to an "assault on Christmas" carried out by "UN fanatics...What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations.”
Today’s War Over Christmas still revolves around department stores, and focuses on the rise of “Happy Holidays” and “Holiday Trees.” And it remains alert to an internal enemy poised to stab America in the back. But like everything else, the War Over Christmas has become tarted up, 24-houred and Twitterized—even as it has grown drearily routine, an annual pageant in which culture warriors line the trenches and, like mechanical toy soldiers in a shopping-mall display, fix bayonets and wage the same battle all over again.
The modern American War on Christmas began “pretty much 10 years ago,” Fox News host Bill O’Reilly recalled earlier this month in a conversation with Sarah Palin (the former would-be veep was promoting her new book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas). It was sparked in part, he said, by “major corporations [that] ordered their employees not to say ‘Merry Christmas.’”
He got the date slightly wrong. It was actually nine years ago, almost to the day, on Dec. 7th, 2004, that The O'Reilly Factor first aired a segment on “Christmas Under Siege” and, in so doing, appears to have launched The War Over Christmas as we know it.
“All over the country, Christmas is taking flak,” O’Reilly told viewers, deploying a fittingly martial metaphor. “In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the ‘holiday tree,’ and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores—that’s Macy’s—have done away with the Christmas greeting ‘Merry Christmas.’”
This was three years after the Sept. 11 attacks, two years after Fox had overtaken CNN to become the nation’s most-watched cable news channel, 20 months since the United States invaded Iraq, and one year after George W. Bush defeated John Kerry after a campaign focused so intensely on gay marriage that it is now hard to comprehend. The newest round of the culture wars was in full swing.
"The Christmas War is symbiotic, promoting a wholesome effect on ratings and web traffic alike," writes Denvir. "Liberals mock conservatives, and conservatives then hold up the liberal ridicule."
One happy warrior was Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan, who wrote in December 2003 that her snooty Upper East Side neighbors’ distaste for her Virgin Mary figurine was proof that “the meaning and actuality of 9/11 ... has receded.” It was a moment when conservative ascendancy had reached new heights, but also its outer limits. Liberals (or, in O’Reilly's language, “secular progressives”) were at the gate, and ready to jump the walls.
“Secular progressives realize,” O'Reilly continued, “that America as it is now will never approve of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation and many other progressive visions because of religious opposition. But if the secularists can destroy religion in the public arena, the brave new progressive world is a possibility. That’s what happened in Canada.”
The echo chamber-packaged absurdity reached its apogee last week, when a contributor to the left-leaning site Slate proposed, tongue not completely out of cheek, that “America abandon Santa-as-fat-old-white-man and create a new symbol of Christmas cheer. From here on out, Santa Claus should be a penguin.” Fox’s Megyn Kelly took the bait, and assured children watching her show that Santa was, in fact, white—as was Jesus. Slate responded, as did everyone else on all sides of the trench. Kelly then explained that she was kidding. It was all in good fun. Click, click, click.
But sometimes, the War Over Christmas brings out the ugly side of its most fervent believers.
“Go to Saudi Arabia, let them go to Pakistan,” televangelist Pat Robertson told imagined Christmas opponents in 2004. “Yeah, they can go to the Sudan and find a wonderful Muslim holiday.” O’Reilly told a Jewish person who called into his radio show that if you have a problem with Christmas, “you gotta go to Israel then.”
Blogger Peter Brimelow called a 2012 Stewart segment “mostly an irrelevant but uninhibited expression of Jewish alienation and Christophobia.”
Brimelow—the founder of a popular conservative and frequently white nationalist blog called VDARE—is an expert in such matters. He is credited, and credits himself, for inventing the War on Christmas in the late 1990s, well before O’Reilly. “I just got real interested in the issue,” Brimelow told the Daily Beast in 2008, “because I noticed over the years there was this social shift taking place where people no longer said ‘Merry Christmas.’”
Brimelow is a close student of social shifts, particularly when they are related to skin color or national origin. “The root cause in all cases is the same: an American elite which is increasingly divergent, culturally and even ethnically, from the rest of the country,” Brimelow wrote, referring to what he calls the “Minority Occupied Government.”
Some prominent conservatives aren’t on board. “Not every skirmish is a war, and Christmas seems to be doing fine, so I have nothing to add to this seasonal subject,” Washington Post columnist George Will told me. It’s the sort of culture proxy war that mobilizes the right-wing base while embarrassing the establishment—the paranoid angst that often flushes through right-wing corners of American political consciousness, from the nationalistic red scare of the early 20th century to John Birch’s Cold War fright.
And for O’Reilly, who once wondered whether criticism surrounding Mel Gibson's 2004 anti-Semitic blockbuster The Passion of Christ might be a result of the fact that “the major media in Hollywood and a lot of the secular press is controlled by Jewish people,” it is sometimes hard to believe that “secular progressives” isn't some kind of code word, too.
“Remember,” he said in 2004, “more than 90 percent of American homes celebrate Christmas. But the small minority that is trying to impose its will on the majority is so vicious, so dishonest—and has to be dealt with.”
Back then, at the patriotic height of the aughts, these were the kinds of dark, apocalyptic sentiments that worried liberals, and made centrist figures like George Will quietly uncomfortable. A decade on, though, the War Over Christmas is just something we do every year, like wrapping presents or drinking eggnog. But the hangover is giving me a nasty headache.
Daniel Denvir is staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.