The Roots of the War on Christmas

This year, as they do every year, the religious right is engaging in its annual bout of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering over the supposed secular plot to ban Christmas. Fox News, Christian-right groups, and other outlets in the culture war publish TV segments like “Christmas Under Siege“, books like John Gibson’s The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought, and websites such as Defend Christmas.

Judging by their hysteria, one would think Christmas was teetering on the brink of extinction, rather than a looming and omnipresent holiday that dominates the end of the year and seemingly consumes all media beginning, in many cases now, as soon as the day after Halloween. I’d reassure these conservatives that it’s not going away, if I thought that would do any good. But of course, whipping up irrational fear and anger among their followers is their stock in trade, and it’s big business, too. (“Now you too can join the battle to save Christmas from the secular progressives for only $24.99, plus shipping!”)

One of the most memorable salvos in the “War on Christmas” was fired by Bill O’Reilly back in 2005:

See, I think it’s all part of the secular progressive agenda to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square. Because if you look at what happened in Western Europe and Canada, if you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage, because the objection to those things is religious-based, usually.

You see, Target store clerks saying “Happy Holidays” are just the first step in our insidious plan to silence Christianity so we can institute legalized euthanasia, abortion on demand, and presumably men marrying box turtles. But what O’Reilly may not know is that the War on Christmas is much older than he thinks. Take a guess: who said this?

Instead of looking forward to Christmas, it is a spirit of inquiry as to how far we can go at Christmas. We are asking whether we dare, as Christians in a Christian land, whisper the Name that gives Christmas its meaning. That is, the Christians are doing the Christmas asking early this year. Christian teachers want to know if they will be discharged if they give their classes a bit of Christmas flavor, as all our teachers gave us when we were young. The contrast between the schools which we of the mature generation attended when we were young, and the schools of today whose pupils are carefully screened from the fact that Christmas celebrates Christ, is such a contrast as ought to give mature Americans a pause.

Aside from the fact that it’s more articulate than the usual shouting heads, this bit of paranoia sounds just like the nonsense that Fox commentators and Focus on the Family spokesmen spew out every year. All the same elements are there: Christians being persecuted by a powerful enemy, religious messages screened out of schools and public places, and longing for a return to the Christian heritage of the past.

Give up yet? That piece of doggerel was written by Henry Ford, American industrialist… in his 1920 anti-Semitic screed, The International Jew.

Here’s some more from that publication:

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.

When Cleveland and Lakewood arranged for a community Christmas, the Cleveland Jewish press said: “The writer of this has no idea how many Jews there are in Lakewood, but if there is only one, there should be no community Christmas, no community religion of any kind.” That is not a counsel of tolerance, it is a counsel of attack. The Christmas literature of American Judaism is fiercer than the flames of the Inquisition.

—At the request of a rabbi, three principals of Roxbury, Massachusetts, public schools agree to banish the Christmas tree and omit all references to the season in their schools.—Jewish pupils of Plainfield, New Jersey, petition the abolition of the Bible and Christian songs from the schools.—The Council of the University Settlement, at the request of the New York Kehillah and the Federation of Rumanian Jews, adopts this resolution: “That in holiday celebrations held annually by the Kindergarten Association at the University Settlement every feature of any sectarian character, including Christmas trees, Christmas programs and Christmas songs, and so on, shall be eliminated.”

In its recitation of alleged incidents, its complaint that the minority are imposing their will on the majority, and the belief that every message is permitted except the Christian one, Ford’s tract is a dead ringer for the Christian-right rants we still hear today. Replace “Jews” with “secular progressives” or “atheists”, and “New York Kehillah” with “ACLU”, and these words could have come from the mouth of Bill O’Reilly or any of the right’s other modern-day culture warriors.

Appealing to religious prejudice, claiming the Christian majority is being persecuted and threatened by an unpopular minority, is a time-honored tactic used by genuine bigots past and present. By accusing others of doing what they themselves would like to do, they divert attention from their own goals. (It’s not just anti-Semites, either: books like Markos Moulitsas’ Taking on the System point out that almost identical screeds were produced by ultra-rightist groups like the John Birch Society during the McCarthy era, this time fingering Communists rather than Jews as the nefarious enemies of Christmas.) What’s remarkable is how little these messages of hate have changed over the decades, other than to substitute the name of whichever cultural group is currently in disfavor.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • John

    I agree, “the war on Christmas” is overblown. Way too much money is being made during Christmas season – Christmas is not about to go away. I always explain to my grandkids just what Christmas is, and keep a manger in my living room so they can visualize the event.

  • Leum

    The War on Christmas is the one time when Christian privilege rears its head so high everyone can see it. These “warriors” don’t just want Christmas to be acknowledged, they want all other holidays quashed. I went to the Defend Christmas website you linked, and it criticizes L.L. Bean, not for failing to issue a Christmas catalog, but because “one Christmas catalog issued, all others [were] holiday-centered.” (linky)

    So it doesn’t surprise me that the roots of this war are in hatred of the outgroup, you’d have to loathe everyone who wasn’t exactly like you to be offended that L.L. Bean recognizes that not everyone is a Christian.

    Also, I still say that any of these defenders of Christmas who aren’t Catholic need to spend more time putting the Mass back in Christmas than keeping Christ there.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    What’s remarkable is how little these messages of hate have changed over the decades

    Not really. It’s a tactic that has always worked to manipulate the ignorant into doing whatever the manipulators want them to do.

    I’m disappointed that at least one Christian friend of mine, a man who usually is not easily manipulated, has fallen for the War on Christmas crap and, this year, has expressed his offense at the phrase, “Happy Holidays.” When I say “Happy Holidays,” to people I’m not intending to denigrate Christmas; I’m simply acknowledging that people celebrate a variety of holidays at this time of year. Unfortunately, there’s no room for simple, common courtesy in Christian America. That’s why I never want to live in Christian America – it strikes me as a low-grade version of Hell on Earth.

  • Justin

    From Bill-O:

    See, I think it’s all part of the secular progressive agenda to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square.

    There are two different understandings of the phrase “public square” here, and people like Bill O’Reilly freely switch from one to the other. No one is trying to bar religious people from open expression of belief; just from having government endorsement of those beliefs.

    Nativity scenes in a state capitol are one thing; but nobody’s planning to confiscate the nativity scene on somebody’s front lawn.

  • John Nernoff

    One will pick up a lot on this battle from “Countdown” on MSNBC hosted by Keith Olbermann. He frequently references “Bill-O” (Bill O’Reilly) and his paranoid complaints of the war on Christmas on “Fix-News” (Fox News). Keith regularly picks up on Fox News’ own support of the alleged elimination of Christmas with its use of “Happy Holidays” and other secular waterings-down of the Christ centered holiday.

  • Polly

    and the belief that every message is permitted except the Christian one,

    OMFSM! I just got through listening to that crap practically VERBATIM 5 minutes ago from my mother. Followed by a printout of a War-on-Xmas screed (forwarded in e-mail format)written by Ben Stein about how atheists are trying to claim this country is just for them. Blech!

    If I don’t come out this Xmas it will be a frickin’ festivus miracle. :)

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    I work in the Fox News building in NYC (but not for Fox) and I see John Gibson a lot there. Recently, I have taken to wearing a Media Matters baseball cap when I enter and exit the building, just to piss of any Fox News people who might see it. Bill O’Reilly really hates Media Matters and he often rants about them on his show.

    The irony is that if you look at the history of Christianity in the late Roman and into the Middle Ages, Christian clerics had no compunction about destroying pagan temples or tearing down sacred groves like the Oak of Geismar in their efforts to stamp out paganism.

  • http://paulsoth.livejournal.com/ Paul Soth

    And there’s quite a few fundamental Christians who are flat-out opposed to celebrating Christmas, knowing full well of the holiday’s pre-christian origins. How do the “War of Christmas” windbags deal with the Christians then?

  • TEP

    I think it’s a case of the religious right considering not being allowed to force their views on everyone else to be ‘persecution’. Simply observing the mere existence of people who celebrate the holiday for different reasons to them is seen as ‘forcing’ those alternate reasons upon them. Ergo, the fact that people celebrate the holiday for reasons other than glorifying a fictitious magical megalomanical hippy, and saying that they do, is proof that there exists a gigantic conspiracy to stop them from glorifying that being. The real “War against Christmas” is the one waged by the religious right against those who like to celebrate it in any way but their way. It’s okay to saturate the place in Jesus decorations, but should anybody instead say “Happy Holidays” (or anything else that acknowledges that there are many ways of celebrating the occasion, not just the Christian way), suddenly it’s ‘persecution’.

  • Leum

    Well, Bill O’Reilly got mad at Fred Phelps’ getting an anti-Santa screed put up in Washington state’s capitol building. I suspect they view these people (all anti-Christmas Christians, not just Phelps) as just as evil as us. After all, they have the audacity to not agree 100% with Bill O’Reilly and co, so they must be bad people. The wingnut movement doesn’t have great discernment, it lumps everyone into two categories: agrees with us, and evil; they don’t bother to learn about the divisions among the evil group.

    Polly, you have my sympathies, good luck putting up with your family.

    The irony is that if you look at the history of Christianity in the late Roman and into the Middle Ages, Christian clerics had no compunction about destroying pagan temples or tearing down sacred groves like the Oak of Geismar in their efforts to stamp out paganism.

    That was just a pre-emptive strike. They knew that several hundred years later the pagans would take away their right never to hear the name of a non-Christian holiday, so they retaliated before it happened.

  • Ingersoll’s Revenge

    But of course, whipping up irrational fear and anger among their followers is their stock in trade, and it’s big business, too. (“Now you too can join the battle to save Christmas from the secular progressives for only $24.99, plus shipping!”)

    And the dog’s name is “Bingo.” Conspiracy Theory + Media Exposure = $$$$$!

    “Calling all Christians! Didn’t you know that Christmas is in danger of being destroyed? Never mind that every house in your neighborhood is strung out with glittering bulbs and uprooted evergreens, ignore the ocean of red and green awaiting you around every corner, and pay no mind to the incessant loop of peevish carols that play in every store and household, 24/7! And certainly pay no heed to the fact that none of these things has anything to do with the actual holiday! The [insert vocal minority group here] have declared war on Christmas, and they will win unless you spend, spend, spend! Our sponsors thank you in advance!”

    The money aside, however, I think that a big part of it is an unwillingness to relinquish privilege. Christianity has obviously enjoyed a privileged status in the “public sphere” (however you wish to define that one, Bill-O), and though this concept has been challenged in recent years, Christmas seems to be the last impregnable stronghold for the religious right. If some complain that this particular privilege was sneaked in the proverbial back gate, the response is, “To the ramparts, men! Sound the battle drums!”

    Visions of sugarplums are a poor substitute once you’ve tasted the genuine article, and they’ll do anything to keep from giving it up, no matter how dumb they appear.

  • MS Quixote

    One will pick up a lot on this battle from “Countdown” on MSNBC hosted by Keith Olbermann.

    Not bad. That’s about a third of MSNBC’s audience :)

  • goyo

    Polly:
    I’m in the same boat. I come from a strong southern baptist family, and my mom suspects I’m an atheist but doesn’t want to hear about it. She’s so afraid I’ll end up in hell, and she can’t understand why I would turn from the ” faith of our fathers”.
    The rest of the family knows, but it’s the family secret.
    Strange, but she’s 80 and I don’t want to push it. This time of year is always difficult.

  • John Nernoff

    Bill O’Reilly is a hardened Catholic, yet his slogan is “the spin stops here.” I always found that terribly ironic.

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    ..in many cases now, as soon as the day after Halloween.

    You kidding? No joke, I saw Christmas stuff in some aisles in August. Barf.

  • KShep

    Anyone else notice how there exists among many christians a multi-generational admiration for the great Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas?”

    Haven’t any of those idiots actually watched that show? Do they not notice the central message of the story?

    I would think that christians would welcome a scaled-back christmas, where they celebrate the supposed real reason for the season, like the Who’s down in Whoville, rather than the mass–marketed bullshit it’s become.

    But what do I know?

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    KShep,

    But what do I know?

    I think you show you know what Christmas isn’t supposed to be. I think atheists, skeptics and critics rightfully see it for the perversion it has become, mostly because atheists, skeptics and critics don’t have the blinders of acceptance which so often encourage otherwise.

    I would think that christians would welcome a scaled-back christmas,

    I’ve been trying to wean myself off Christmas for about 5 years now. What’s difficult is the family aspect, and the inherent clashes such can cause. Try being the guy showing up to the party empty-handed, and see the looks, feel the assumptions. People will think you’re cheap, grumpy, weird, and on down the line. But I just want to be with friends and family, eat some good food, have real conversation as opposed to family feud, and most importantly, give to those who lack the means to give to themselves. I thought about refusing presents this year, but I just don’t want to deal with it. When people ask, “What do you want” I reply with the above about food, conversation, generosity, etc.

  • Tom

    You kidding? No joke, I saw Christmas stuff in some aisles in August. Barf.

    It’ll be interesting to see if things actually deterioriate to the point that christmas preparations begin closer to the last one – or maybe people will even end up getting ready for each christmas several months before the preceding one!

  • http://thewarfareismental.typepad.com cl

    Tom,

    LOLOL!!! Ebonmuse, screw the Rapture Bonds, any takers for a bet on what the first year where Christmas preparations will begin before June 25th? Ha! Getting ready for Christmas 4 days after the first day of summer…

    Seriously. If the current trend continues, then yes,

    ..maybe people will even end up getting ready for each christmas several months before the preceding one!

    The thing that bums me out most about Christmas is how people drive and act the last 2 weeks – so sketchy.

  • bbk

    The irony is that if you look at the history of Christianity in the late Roman and into the Middle Ages, Christian clerics had no compunction about destroying pagan temples or tearing down sacred groves like the Oak of Geismar in their efforts to stamp out paganism.

    They also had no compunction about buying slave boys when the local population wasn’t willing to supply enough bodies for the clergy. They only went about destroying other religions once there was enough popular support on their side. Christians were always a pathetic, power-hungry bunch.

  • http://www.mindonfire.com xJane

    I find it interesting that it’s always “atheists” who are apparently against the word “Christmas” (which most atheists I know find to be a secular holiday of gift-giving, Santas, and trees). The reason I say “happy holidays” is that the person I’m talking to may be Christian, but may well be pagan, Jewish, or Muslim. If I knew, I would wish happiness for the appropriate holiday.

  • Polly

    @goyo

    Strange, but she’s 80 and I don’t want to push it. This time of year is always difficult.

    This time of year especially. It seems like a lot of disappointment with life in general combined with the persecution complex stirs up arguments too easily. She still thinks I’m “saved” (I think) but is aware of a definite trend from me away from the (tel)evangelical-type worldview. And that’s me holding a lot back!

  • Nes

    That’s exactly why I use that phrase, too, xJane.

  • Richard P

    I think that it is the commercial interests that focus on removing the Christ from x-mass. They generate interest in the holiday by creating conflict, while pretending to mulfiy it by compromising and calling it a season of giving. Really it is an attempt to get everyone to spend money.
    “Lets not just have the bible thumpers giving, let’s get everyone doing it. That way they can run up the credit cards. Stimulate the economy with more pretend money.”

  • Libby

    As much as I disagree with the Catholic church I am required to attend weekly, I never thought they’d sink to this sort of language. They generally prefer to make their political agendas understated and implicit, rather than using fear-mongering propaganda such as the “War on Christmas.”

    Well, last week they went there. According to our pastor, the “secular progressives” are trying to take away our “christian society” and replace it with secular policies that lead to the “immorality, dysfunction, and the collapse of our society.” He said that during this Christmas season, we had to fight in the “War on Christmas” to defend our religious liberties.

    Then he said “secular progressives” again as if it was a synonym for the devil.

    Catholics continue to surprise me.

  • bipolar2

    ** Celebrate the only Sun reborn each December 21 **

    “Proclaim [anti-supernaturalism] throughout the land and to all the inhabitants thereof.”

    Reason, rudeness, the risible should never be underestimated when dealing with sanctimonious xians.

    Crude or sophisticated . . . straight-up or parody with a twist, your voice will spread a mindset that xianity is (and always has been) a lying joyless fraud.

    Remember your audience is vast. As the good news supposedly says, “Those who are not against us are with us.”

    What do all gods have in common? They’re dead.

    bipolar2

  • nfpendleton

    The simple fact that “Merry Christmas” is being replaced by “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings,” is because of what I thought the promise of the US was supposed to be all along: An inclusive melting pot of all nationalities, beliefs or disbeliefs, and cultures. Apparently the cave conservatives really just mean, “NON-XIANS NEED NOT APPLY.”

    Not a very American conceit.

  • http://larianlequella.com Larian LeQuella

    Every time I see all that “Keep X in Xmas” BS that the xtians have on their cars and such, I want to post a “Keep the Solstice in Saturnalia!”

  • Jim Baerg

    Here’s an interesting historical comment on ‘the war on Christmas’, with a discussion of the origins of many Christmas traditions.

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/12/21/221425/67/364/675959