On the telephone as reporting tool

santa telephoneA few weeks ago a mini-scandal broke out surrounding Ridgeway Elementary School in Wisconsin. It seemed that some official with the school play had secularized the words to the beautiful “Silent Night” (or as we Lutherans call it: “Stille Nacht“) to “Cold in the Night.” Various groups got enraged and sent out press releases and television networks ate it up and ran breathless segments about the war on Christmas.

So Washington Post reporter Neely Tucker did something revolutionary. He picked up his telephone and called the author of the play in which “Cold in the Night” is featured. It turns out that playwright Dwight Elrich was a music director for a choir at Bel Air Presbyterian (President Reagan’s church in California) for decades. The play comes with a “Christian” page which may be inserted and includes Christian Christmas songs such as “Angels We Have Heard on High.”

On the one hand, Tucker pokes fun at Fox News’ John Gibson and Bill O’Reilly and generally gives the impression that the war on Christmas is more perception than reality, but on the other hand he does a good job of explaining why those who feel attacked do so. Tucker does this by speaking with James P. Byrd Jr., assistant dean of the Vanderbilt University Divinity School. He contrasts what Christmas in 1950 might have seemed like to a conservative Christian with the present. Here’s how Neely characterizes it:

And now you wake up and it’s 2005. You go to hear the kid’s Christmas play, except by the time it clears all the church-state hurdles the ACLU worries about, it sounds more like “Songs of Many Lands as Sung by 6-Year-Olds.” The Christmas Tree at the Capitol in Washington, they call it a “holiday tree” most years now. Even President Bush, a devout Christian, sends out a Christmas card that does not say “Merry Christmas.” Now you hear a lot about Kwanzaa, Hanukkah and “the holidays.” What is to be made of all this?

Tucker provides what so few reporters — especially those on the magic electronic box — have done with this cable-driven war on Christmas: he provides historical context, interviewing authors of various books on the American history of Christmas. He mentions the Puritan distaste for Christmas and keeps on going:

The founding fathers had no Santa Claus (Saint Nicholas, a minor European saint, did not morph into the current image of the gift-laden Santa Claus until the 1820s). There were no Christmas trees (a German import that didn’t take root until the 1840s). Dec. 25 wasn’t made a federal holiday under the first 17 American presidents (including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Abraham Lincoln). The holiday did not come until 1870, under Ulysses Grant, perhaps one of the least pious of presidents.


Thank you! My one complaint, other than the inexplicable editorial “we” the author uses, is the absolutely offensive ending to the piece. Tucker makes fun of Liberty Counsel’s Matt Staver for arguing that Christmas trees should not be renamed:

Historically speaking, academics and scholars agree, he’s right: It is a Christmas tree.

You wonder if the Deity thinks that is the point. Or, perhaps, if it misses it entirely.

No offense, but my beloved hometown paper the Washington Post is just about the last place I look for speculation on what the “Deity” thinks about, well, anything. I mean, they could at least try refraining from mocking religious adherents for a few months before tacking on this ending. But it’s still worthwhile to read.

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  • Arielle

    I would protest the characterization of St. Nicholas as a “minor European saint”…

  • Brad

    I read this earlier today and thought it was one of the best articles I’ve seen for surveying the overall debate.

    I hadn’t even heard of the thing in Wisconsin, so I hadn’t had the chance to be outraged before having it explained to me. :)

    The article does get its shots in there sometimes, though (not least the one there at the end that Mollie mentioned!).


  • Stephen A.

    SEE! There’s NO war on Christmas. I’m glad Neely straightened this out for us. Now we can go back to our “holiday parties” around the “holiday tree” and open our “holiday presents” as we listen to “holiday songs” on the radio (and remember: don’t judge those who don’t want to participate.)

    By the way, Neely is a man. A man with a long white pony tail. I Googled him to get his story.

    Let me wander a bit, but not far, because I’ve gotta vent a bit on this Xmas thing. Not only has Christmas been part of the religious and cultural history of a vast (overwhelmingly vast) majority of Americans for decades, it was the same, and a stronger part, of the lives of our parents. And it was even more meaningful for our grandparents, and THEIR grandparents. Frankly, the oldiest person alive in America (who is probably 114 or so) can probably honestly say THEIR parents and maybe even grandparents celebrated Christmas with great enthusiasm, and certainly knew it was a religious holiday.

    So, what business is it of some cosmopolitan, snide, nasty little person in a newsroom in a liberal city – or ANY person in ANY city – writing these too-snarky-by-half stories anyway?

    What possible meaningful information on the theological and historical basis of Christmas can they offer? Apparently, not much.

    We like it when people “get” religion, but is it “getting” religion to write these snarky “gotcha” pieces on Christmas over and over again? How trite. If I was a city editor, I’d say “Done that. Find a new angle, like why these ‘religious’ people celebrate, and how.”

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    Stephen A.,

    Thank you for letting me know that Neely is a man. I made the appropriate changes in the text above.


  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Stephen, speak for your own parents and grandparents, not mine. My family celebrates Hanukah. And — here’s the important bit — we don’t expect the stores we shop at to validate our religious beliefs. That’s not what stores are there for. Not even the ones where we buy bagels and lox.

    At home, in (private Jewish) school, it was “Happy Hanukah” (or various other spellings). At work, in (public) school, “Happy Holidays”, or “Merry Merry” as one of my friends used to say. No problem, everyone happy.

  • Stephen A.

    Avram, I said the vast majority of people, not ALL people. It’s impossible to say “all” anything, of course, as your example notes.

    I do have to point out that one cannot say the same thing I did about Hanukah as I did about Christmas. A few generations ago, it wasn’t the commercialized thing it is now. In fact (if I’m not misinformed) some Rabinical scholars have said it was a rather insignificant holiday in the Jewish calendar before it became “Christmas Lite.”

    I do have to agree that the point some are making about the commercialization of Christmas – and how irrelevent the issue is of whether stores verbally acknowledge it (or any religious holiday) – is a good one.

    All I’ll say is if it becomes impossible to verbally acknowledge Christmas publicly, how will Hanukah be affected?

  • Michael

    This story is interesting because it presents the problems all journalists face when writing “trend” stories: are people really upset about it, or are they upset because Fox News and the AFA are upset about it. IOW, is this really a “trend” that touches the pulse of cultural conservatives or is it something only their designated spokespersons are upset about?

    I think this happens with many stories journalists write about, on both the cultural right and left. By relying on spokespersons and groups like the AFA, the Human Rights Campaign, the NAACP, NOW, or Concerned Women for America, we know what those trying to raise money feel about an issue.. What we don’t ever really get at is whether genuine people who shop at Target or go to the school musical are inflamed and outraged.

  • Tony D.

    Tangential, but my first reaction was the same as Arielle’s. Calling Nicholas a “minor European saint” is 66.67% like the old saying about the Holy Roman Empire: Nicholas was neither minor nor European! The other 33.33%, of course, is quite accurate.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Stephen, depends on what you mean by “a few”. And I wouldn’t call Hanukah “insignificant”. But yeah, it’s not as major as Christmas is for Christians.

    The practice of Hanukah gift-giving is partly due to influence from Christmas, but there’s also the independent Jewish tradition of Hanukah gelt. The modern Hanukah gift-giving tradition is a sort of hybrid of the two.

    How exactly would it become “impossible to verbally acknowledge Christmas publicly”? What, like you wish a friend “Merry Christmas” on the street, and the cops arrest you for it?

  • Stephen A.

    Compared to other Jewish holidays, apparently Hanukkah was never meant to be the greatest, but has become more important due to Christmas’ influence. I’m sure that’s not controversial, since most Jewish rabbis would surely agree that this holiday has grown up in the last 50 years or so to be the “Jewish Christmas.”
    http://www.jewfaq.org/holiday7.htm (See: “Traditions”)

    That said… If you don’t think a holiday could be banished by unofficial PC cops, you’re mistaken.

    And if you believe the idea that Christmas – the word, not just the holiday and all its expressions – hasn’t been banned by many school districts across the nation by zealous educrats afraid of lawsuits from atheist pressure groups, you’re willfully ignoring the facts.

    If reporters notice this trend that schools and businesses are telling students and employees to not mention Christmas, it’s a legitimate story, even if that evil conservative entertainer Bill O’Reilly gets wind of it and publicizes it, it’s still wrong.

  • http://agrumer.livejournal.com/ Avram

    Could you provide some examples, Stephen? Links to news stories, names of school districts, something with enough information that I can track it down and verify it? Notice that the very post that leads this thread is about a banned-Christmas story that turned out not to be true.

  • Stephen A.

    Of course it’s all lies because the New York Times says so, Avram. I’m sure that’s all the proof you need that we’re all making it up.

  • Stephen A.

    Current and former Archbishops of Canterbury speak out against the secularization of Dec. 25:

    (Of course, I’m sure this is all in their heads.)