A “War on Christmas?” Context, please!

As part of his late-inning effort to capture the attention of cultural conservative voters in Iowa, Rick Perry provided an ad that received both media attention and the response of perturbed progressive opponents, fellow Republicans concerned about the anti-gay strategy, and internet parody producers.

The ad proclaimed his proud Christian identity, asserted that military service by gay persons is a problem, and attacked President Obama’s “war on religion.” Part of this attack was a perennial mainstay of cultural conservative angst during the Yuletide season: “there’s something wrong in this country when . . . kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas.”

This parry by Perry against an allegedly pernicious “War on Christmas” was preceded this holiday season by media cultural warrior Bill O’Reilly, as well as the cast of Fox and Friends, whose annual protestations were met by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart with a predictably satirical response.

 

The FOX News diatribes have included concerns, for instance, that the National Christmas Tree outside the Capitol isn’t sufficiently Christian, despite the historical context (ironically reported by FOX News) that the Christmas tree tradition isn’t even Christian in the first place.

This year, Perry isn’t the only one leveraging the political value of Christmas, as recent ads from Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul illustrate.  Perry’s ad, however, is the only one in this presidential year to explicitly allege a “war” on religion, and implicitly allege a “war on Christmas.” Since we are once again in a time when our holiday season intersects with a high-profile campaign season, and in what I believe is in the true spirit of a defense of Christmas, I offer an essay co-written a few years back by myself and my friend and colleague Michele Ramsey from Penn State University—Berks Campus, which contextualizes the so-called “War on Christmas” in a way usually absent from the media coverage of this so-called controversy.

Merry Christmas – and Happy Holidays – to you and yours from the Political Denizens.

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On December 14, 2005, the US House of Representatives spent forty minutes debating House Resolution 579, “Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected.”  The resolution, which passed the following day by a vote of 401 to 22 after slight modification, reads as follows:

Whereas Christmas is a national holiday celebrated on December 25; and

Whereas the Framers intended that the First Amendment to the Constitution of theUnited Stateswould prohibit the establishment of religion, not prohibit any mention of religion or reference to God in civic dialog: Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives–

(1) recognizes the importance of the symbols and traditions of Christmas;

(2) strongly disapproves of attempts to ban references to Christmas; and

(3) expresses support for the use of these symbols and traditions, for those who celebrate Christmas (Cong. Record H11596).

As part of the floor debate, Representative John Dingell, a Democrat from Michigan, read a poem he composed based on Clement Clarke Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas.  It read, in part,

Twas the week before Christmas and all through the House

No bills were passed ‘bout which FOX News could grouse;

Tax cuts for the wealthy were passed with great cheer,

So vacations in St. Barts soon would be near;

Katrina kids were nestled all snug in motel beds,

While visions of school and home danced in their heads;

In Iraq our soldiers needed supplies and a plan,

Plus nuclear weapons were being built inIran;

Gas prices shot up, consumer confidence fell;

Americans feared we were on a fast track to…well…

Wait – we need a distraction – something divisive and wily;

A fabrication straight from the mouth of O’Reilly

We can pretend that Christmas is under attack

Hold a vote to save it – then pat ourselves on the back.

            Silent Night, First Noel, Away in the Manger,

Wake up Congress, they’re in no danger.

This time of year, we see Christmas everywhere we go,

From churches to homes to schools and, yes, even Costco.

What we have is an attempt to divide and destroy

when this is the season to unite us with joy.

At Christmastime, we’re taught to unite.

We don’t need a made-up reason to fight.

So on O’Reilly, on Hannity, on Coulter and those right-wing blogs.

You should sit back and relax, have a few egg nogs.

’Tis the holiday season; enjoy it a pinch.

With all our real problems, do we really need another Grinch?

So to my friends and my colleagues, I say with delight,

a Merry Christmas to all, and to Bill O’Reilly, happy holidays.

Ho, ho, ho. Merry Christmas. (Cong. Record H11598).

This episode is both laughable and troubling, for it illustrates the pervasive power of the news media to influence the public agenda and construct controversy where, arguably, little existed previously. The episode also points to the willingness of many politicians to play mindlessly into the hands of anyone or any group who can muster up enough media coverage without regard for the negative impact that this mindless behavior has on our democracy or the public perceptions of it.

When one typically thinks of Christmas, a constellation of images and episodes spring to mind, with elements both intimately personal and culturally shared.  For us, Christmas means memories of helping our families trim the tree and set up the family crèche, big dinners with extended family, caroling with friends, wrapping the presents we bought for my parents with our allowance with utmost care, and the eager anticipation of Santa Claus.  Today, it also means baking cookies for our families while the holiday radio station plays, attending candlelight vespers, watching the TV specials we have seen countless times with the toddlers in our lives for the first time, and the eager anticipation of Santa Claus.

One mainstay over the years has been a perennial viewing of A Charlie Brown Christmas, a personal favorite of many of us.  As you may recall, our hero, struggling to grasp the meaning of the season while his friends and beagle bask in consumerist reveries of light competitions, pink aluminum trees, Christmas Queens and cash payouts from Santa, gains perspective from his best friend Linus, who recites the King James version of Luke 2: 8-14.  The speech concludes “‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’”  Charlie Brown’s subsequent resolve to care for a weak, sickly reject of a Christmas tree still makes our eyes well up.

Sharing this memory is, in part, evidence that this book has not been written by die-hard members of the lunatic fringe, part of the imagined intricate and powerful secular progressive conspiracy to deprive traditional Americans of their Christmas. We certainly don’t share the position of Ebenezer Scrooge that “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” We, as millions of Americans, “recognize[d] the importance of the symbols and traditions of Christmas” long before the House of Representatives resolved to do so, and we’re pretty sure that such important symbols and traditions shouldn’t include the following:

I am calling upon thousands of pastors and churches to join Liberty Counsel’s “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign.” We must draw a line in the sand and resist bullying tactics of the ACLU and others who intimidate school and government officials by spreading misinformation about Christmas. Celebrating Christmas is constitutional (Falwell, qtd. in “Liberty Alert”).

This issue of non Christians being confronted with Christianity wherever they go at Christmas time seems to me to be best answered by “Well… DUH!” It’s a Christian holiday and it’s a big one. Eighty-four percent of the country self identifies as Christian. Ninety-six percent of the country observes or celebrates Christmas in some form, if only slightly, so what would one expect? I think Christmas does require the forbearance of non-Christians, but I don’t think it should be a big issue. Once again, the American tradition is tolerance, and I see no reason why tolerance should not be extended to the majority religion and its secularized symbols (Gibson, qtd. in Lopez par. 13).

I think you made a mistake by saying it’s a liberal plot. And I’ll tell you why. I believe – and I could be wrong – that most liberals are as angry about this as conservatives. It’s the far left. It’s the loony left, the Kool-Aid secular progressive ACLU America-haters. That’s who’s doing this (O’Reilly Factor 20 Oct. 2005).

We’re pretty sure that Linus would not approve of such sentiments.

The improbable yet sadly perennial war on the “War on Christmas” has become a subject of national notoriety over the past few years.  What once was a series of local skirmishes over nativity scenes outside of City Hall or songs about the baby Jesus sung in public schools rose to the level of a national media event and Congressional agenda item.  Americans have feuded over the celebration of Christmas since before the founding, but since 2004 this feud has become the stuff of public politics on a grand scale.  How did this come to pass?  And what does this mean for all of us as citizens of a democracy and consumers of an all-encompassing media and consumer culture?

It is appropriate (indeed, I believe, ethically necessary) to provide what so much of the “War on Christmas” discourse over the past few years usually hasn’t: a historical context to understand the roots of the controversy more fully.

Where Did This “War on Christmas” Come From?

Contemporary discourse on the “War on Christmas” cannot be fully understood outside of a much broader historical and cultural context, within which the American Christmas experience has always involved a complicated set of tensions between pagan celebratory traditions, Christian religious beliefs, conspicuous commercial consumption and the disciplining of social conduct.  A brief outline can inform our understanding of the deeper implications of the “War on Christmas” controversy, especially in two key areas: the US cultural tradition of connecting Christmas observance to consumerism, and the emergence of a “war” to “defend” Christmas from the ranks of culturally conservative political activists and media figures.

The Cultural Evolution of a “Consumer Christmas” in US History

Leigh Eric Schmidt’s examination of the cultural history of Christmas in the United States reminds us that, in the early history of the nation, the rejection of raucous, drunken public Yuletide celebrations by Puritan Christians and by the socioeconomic elite led to a disciplining of year-end Christmas and New Year celebrations in at least two ways. First, the rise of commercial industrialization and consumer culture around the turn of the nineteenth century led not only to a concerted focus on the exchange of consumer goods as Christmas gifts, but also to a cultural desire to emulate the courtly, decorous and family-centered celebration of Christmas by the genteel class to replace the older popular tradition of revelry in the streets.  The marketing of such a family- and gift- based celebration involved the evolution of such European Christmas symbolism as the Christmas tree, Santa Claus, et cetera.  These symbolic innovations were especially important as a means of transforming the holiday into a significant commercial opportunity for merchandisers by communicating the cultural imperative of equating Christmas celebration with consumption.

Second, a “churchly vision of consecration” (181) picked up steam in the 19th century, within which Christmas celebrants, encouraged by churches and community leaders, reappropriated religious symbols and stories of the Nativity to join the secular symbolism of Christmas trees, Santa Claus and the like.  This Christian resurgence was due in part to a recognition by religious traditionalists of what Schmidt describes as a displacement of the religious by the construction of a commercial Christmas as a secularized religious observance, if you will:

Holiday presents and packages were God’s mercies, and Santa Claus, in particular, was the bearer and vehicle of these graces. Thus, one of the relationships of Christianity to the new Christmas bazaar was this: The rituals of home and marketplace competed with church-centered celebrations. Shopping and gift-giving were, in fair measure, secular liturgies, representing a new kind of middle-class faith in family and abundance—a faith that showed a striking capacity both to absorb Christianity and to supplant it (Schmidt 159)

Schmidt argues that Christian religion and secular commerce existed both in a state of tension and of symbiosis during the evolution of the American Christmas experience into the twentieth century.  He points out that, on at least two occasions (once in 1896, and once in 1992), ecumenical groups of religious leaders came together to discuss and make public statements regarding the need to rechannel the consumer extravagancies of Christmas, what had become a “modern paganism” (186) into spiritual concerns.  By the 1930s and 40s, “‘the commercialization of Christmas’ had become a standard subject of religious protest” (188).

During the turn-of-the-century period, as well, other critics of Christmas focused on the consumer holiday’s exacerbation of class inequities, particularly on manufacturing child labor and the work conditions of retail employees. Ironically, for instance, Progressive Era reform concerns over the intensity of workload on retail labor led to the “Shop Early” campaign, which ultimately resulted in the expansion of the Christmas shopping season backward to Thanksgiving or even earlier.  However, criticisms of Christmas consumerism often folded into the expanding commercialization of the holiday, rather than cut against it.  For instance, the rise of the “Put Christ Back into Christmas” campaign, which came to life in Milwaukee,Wisconsin in 1949 and Evanston, Illinois in 1951, was driven by a concern that the religious meaning of the season was being lost.  However, the solution posed by the movement lay in the collaboration of clergy, civic leaders, commercial retailers and their marketing support to propagate the Christian iconography and message through advertising and decorative display in stores. As Schmidt put it, “Perhaps what was most striking about the new campaign, however, was not its protest of Christmas commercialism, but its consecration of it. . . . [T]he campaign was a concerted effort to reclaim the holiday’s religious meanings within, rather than apart from, the modern consumer culture” (189).

Besides the symbiotic tension between Christian religion and consumer economy, another important element of the context framing the “War on Christmas” is the tradition of the “culture war” waged by conservative is joined by activists and their opponents since at least the middle half of the twentieth century.  While a complete history is beyond the scope of this account, one notable episode recounted by Michelle Goldberg in a 2005 essay in Salon seems to foreshadow the current controversy.

The John Birch Society (JBS), a fringe organization of conservative extremists, began a campaign in 1959 to defend Christmas from assault by “Reds” and “UN fanatics” (Goldberg paras. 1-2).  The JBS contended that a “godless [United Nations]” was attempting to have Christmas decorations in department stores replaced by “internationalist celebrations of universal brotherhood” (Goldberg para. 1).  The goal of the assault was, according to one pamphlet, “part of a much broader plan, not only to promote the UN, but to destroy all religious beliefs and customs” (qtd. in Goldberg para. 3).  The JBS called on supporters to defend the “pillar of religion in our country” (qtd. in Goldberg para. 1) by threatening department stores with “improper ornamentation” with boycott (para. 3).  The 1959 JBS campaign was dismissed at the time, but provides an interesting parallel to the current campaign, and particularly the efforts of some media personalities, particularly FOX News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, to rally audiences against department store chains with an “unfriendly” attitude toward Christmas.

The Contemporary Mediated War on the “War on Christmas”

Describing alleged assaults on Christmas tradition as a “war against Christmas” goes back at least as far as December 1999, when right-wing extremist Peter Brimelow began using the phrase (and related terms such as Kulturkampf, or “culture war”) on his anti-immigration website VDARE.com (“How the HUD Stole Christmas” para. 1).  Brimelow claims that he was the primary influence for “an annual competition for the most egregious attempt to suppress Christmas” in the National Review while he was in their employ, and continued the yearly contest on his website after that magazine discontinued it (“VDARE Says Merry Christmas and VDARE Says the Hell With It” para. 1).

The principal sources of the current upsurge in fighting an alleged “War on Christmas” are twofold.  First, organizations affiliated with the Christian Right have fought legal and rhetorical battles to preserve various forms of public symbolic display of Christmas tradition.  One of the most active and influential of these is the Liberty Counsel, a legal activist group founded in 1989 that describes itself as “a nonprofit litigation, education and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family” (“About Liberty Counsel”). The Liberty Counsel organized the “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign,” designed to mount legal challenges and place public pressure on “grinches” (primarily public institutions like city councils and schools, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union) that are perceived as assaulting traditional Christmas expression such as crèche display, carols, and the like.  In 2005 the “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign” was endorsed by Jerry Falwell, as well as by the Christian Educators Association International (“Liberty Counsel Alert!Nov. 3 2005”).

The Liberty Counsel is not alone, however.  They are joined by such organizations as James Dobson’s Alliance Defense Fund, which sponsors an annual Christmas Project similar to the “Friend or Foe” campaign centered on the slogan “Merry Christmas. It’s okay to say it” (Alliance Defense Fund).  Other organizations have focused their attention on commercial rather than civic threats.  During the 2005 holiday shopping season, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights boycotted Wal-Mart for “insulting Christians by effectively banning Christmas” (qtd. in Goldberg para. 7), and the American Family Association “called for a Thanksgiving-weekend boycott of Target because of the because of the chain’s purported refusal to use the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ in its advertising” (Goldberg para. 7).

The second, and perhaps more broadly influential, self-proclaimed defenders of Christmas are media personalities employed by the FOX News Network.  The preeminent FOX News personality, Bill O’Reilly, used his nightly show to bring the defense of Christmas against liberal assault to a national stage beginning in 2004.  His regular “Christmas Under Siege” segments tended to focus on areas conventionally associated with the right-wing defense of religious displays in public areas.

The October 2005 publication of The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Think, written by then-FOX News personality John Gibson, provided the controversy with a new tag line and renewed currency.  Gibson’s book uses anecdotes regarding struggles over displays of Christmas decorations and expressions of Christmas tidings and Christian religious faith in places ranging from Maplewood, New Jersey to Plano, Texas to Eugene, Oregon.  The anecdotes often center on the actions of otherwise well-meaning, often Christian city and school administrators who are duped or coerced into making anti-Christmas policy decisions by liberal, anti-Christian agitators. The central theme in the book concerns a broader “War on Christians” in the culture, headed by a litigious, bullying ACLU and liberal university academics, among others, seeking to stamp out Christmas as part of a secular agenda that includes systematic, institutionalized “anti-Christian bias.” This agenda is exercised, according to Gibson, in flagrant disregard of United States Supreme Court rulings regarding Christmas tree displays, student-to-student religious expression, and so on. 

Gibson’s book became fodder for FOX News coverage of the controversy during the 2005 holiday season, with the “War on Christmas” becoming a tagline of choice.  FOX News capitalized on the opportunity for synergy – Gibson appeared on O’Reilly’s program, as well as that of fellow conservative personality Sean Hannity, O’Reilly used anecdotes from the Gibson book in his salvos against restrictions on public Christmas observance, and O’Reilly’s defense of Christmas was touted on Gibson’s program The Big Story as well as on Hannity and Colmes.  In addition, The War on Christmas appeared as one of several books O’Reilly recommended on his BillOReilly.com blog as Christmas presents in 2005.

However, Gibson’s book did not provide the sole impetus to FOX News’ 2005 pro-Christmas indignation.  Efforts by the Liberty Counsel, the Catholic League and the American Family Association seem to have led O’Reilly to include the alleged banning of the phrase “Merry Christmas” from the advertising, holiday displays, and employee greetings in department stores, particularly Sears/Kmart and Wal-Mart.  In 2005, O’Reilly’s criticisms of national department store policies often overshadowed his attacks against ACLU lawsuits and public school restrictions of publicly-sponsored promotion of religious Christmas symbols. A sample of O’Reilly’s 2005 coverage illustrates how conservative Christmas warriors linked alleged attacks on Christmas observances to a much broader “secular progressive” agenda to dismantle cultural values.

While media coverage of the “War on Christmas” has dropped precipitously from its apex in 2005, the phrase “war on Christmas” has (sadly) becomes embedded in the media lexicon, returning each year around Thanksgiving to give new life to this dispute.

What we see in the historical context is the construction of Christmas as an important symbol within an ideological system at the heart of modern, post-Goldwater conservatism (and, many would argue, of American hegemony writ large): an elaborate interconnection between traditional cultural values (especially, but certainly not exclusively, Christian religion), capitalist economy grounded largely by a self-perpetuating consumer culture, and an American identity that marginalizes non-majority cultural and religious expressions as “un-American.”  In particular, what ties the ideological threads together is the power of commercial behavior, both by the sellers and consumers of goods.  Appropriate behavior within the commercial economy of Christmas, apparently, provides social stability, socioeconomic status, and legitimacy for religious and cultural traditions – and, conversely, inappropriate commercial behavior has been framed as culturally destabilizing.  This is certainly not a construction inherent to the holiday or its celebration, but the evolution of this ideological construction of Christmas in theUnited Stateshas been pervasive, and seems to inform the current discourse over Christmas in a profound way.

This particular set of battles in America’s larger culture war is, itself, a fascinating entry into the discourse of cultural conservatives in today’s media system. Moreover, the unique intersection of religion, cultural tradition, commercial behavior and national identity that constitutes the cultural significance of Christmas deserves more attention than many of us grant it. We believe that the discourse driving this controversy is not only logically problematic, but ethically destructive as well.  It divides us unnecessarily, and it advances particular ideological presumptions that can prevent us from becoming a more inclusive, tolerant, and mutually supportive community. But the “War on Christmas” also reminds us of the broader importance of public communication for the formation of culture, community and citizenship.

In the classic animated Christmas special, Charlie Brown does not understand why he is so depressed during the holiday season, and feels he is somehow missing some meaning in the season that others grasp. Five-cent psychiatrist Lucy counsels him that “you need involvement.” As our hero assumes his role as director of the school Christmas play, he is appalled by the behavior of his young classmates (not to mention his pet beagle), who seem to embrace an empty commercialism replete with avaricious gift requests, pink aluminum trees, light contests with cash prizes, and Christmas queens. His best friend Linus reminds everyone of the spiritual core of the holiday, recounting the Christmas story from the Book of Luke.

Inspired, Charlie Brown takes his tiny, forlorn little evergreen tree home to decorate, only to see it droop before his eyes. It is only when the rest of the gang give Charlie Brown’s ailing tree what Linus calls “a little love,” transforming it into a full and gleaming Tannenbaum, does Charlie Brown realize the true meaning of Christmas and join his friends in joyful singing.

The primary message of Linus’ Christmas story, culminating in the revered verse “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men,” perhaps provided the driving force for the Peanuts gang to finally show Charlie Brown the goodwill they had not before, and the result was a beautiful expression of communal cooperation motivated by mutual friendship. Such a demonstration of respect, kindness and fellow-feeling is utterly missing from the diatribes of O’Reilly and their ilk. By contrast, such “defenders of Christmas” engage intentionally in divisive dissembling that set well-meaning citizens against one another in order to advance their own political and economic agendas. In our estimation, that’s the real “War on Christmas.” If we as a community can demand the kind of public communication that actually advances authentic Christmas values, perhaps our public culture might move just a bit closer to Linus’ beautiful vision.

Works Cited

A Charlie Brown Christmas. Dir. Bill Melendez. Perf. Ann Altieri, Chris Doran, Sally Dryer, Bill Melendez, Karen Mendelson. 1965. DVD. Paramount, 2000.

Alliance Defense Fund.  ADF Christmas Project. 2005. 11 July 2006 <http://www.saychristmas.org/main/default.aspx>

Brimelow, Peter.  “How the HUD Stole Christmas.” 25 Dec. 1999.  VDARE.com. 11 July 2006 <http://www.vdare.com/pb/cuomo.htm>

Brimelow, Peter.  “VDARE Says Merry Christmas and VDARE Says the Hell With It.” 12 Dec. 2000.  VDARE.com.11 July 2006 <http://www.vdare.com/pb/merry_christmas.htm>

Congressional Record. 14 Dec. 2005: H11596-H11600.

Goldberg, Michelle. “How the Secular Humanist Grinch Didn’t Steal Christmas.”  21 Nov. 2005. Salon.com.  28 July 2006 <http://dir.salon.com/story/news/ feature/2005/11/21/christmas/>

“Liberty Counsel Alert! November 3, 2005.” Liberty Counsel.  3 Nov. 2005.  6 Apr. 2007 <http://www.lc.org/libertyalert/2005/la110305.htm>

Lopez, Kathryn Jean. “Silent Night, Secular Night.”  National Review Online. 27 Oct. 2005. 6 Apr. 2007  <http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/gibson200510270839.asp>

O’Reilly Factor.  Host Bill O’Reilly. FOX News Network. 20 Oct. 2005.

Project for Excellence in Journalism. “Cable TV: Audience.” The State of the News Media 2006. Journalism.org. 2006.  7 Aug. 2006 <http://www.stateofthenewsmedia.org/2006/narrative_cabletv_intro.asp?cat=1&media=6>

Schmidt, Leigh Eric.  Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays. Princeton University Press, 1995.

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