The Imaginary War on Christmas

One of the best right wing fantasies in recent years is the alleged War on Christmas. This fantasy essentially consists of a belief that a cabal of secularists, atheists, Hindus, Muslims and Jews, a somewhat eclectic group of political bedfellows to be sure, have banned any public Christmas displays and stigmatized things like wishing people a Merry Christmas. This is presented as part of a bigger plot of creeping secularism aimed at destroying Christianity in the US.

Although some Americans do not celebrate Christmas, few actively dislike it or want to make war on it. There are, of course, many who for personal or stress related reasons dislike the Christmas season, but these people are not accused of making war on Christmas. Because of its deep roots in various pre-Christmas traditions, the holiday is very accessible to everybody. Obviously, the religious aspects can put off people who are not Christian, but it is the dominant Christian culture itself that has pushed those aspects to the background in favor of Santa, Rudolph, presents and eggnog. Christmas is such a part of American culture, that those of us who are not Christian can find our own traditions that make it possible to enjoy the holiday. The enormous, and heavily Jewish and Chinese, crowd at the dim sum place where my family had our traditional Christmas brunch on Wednesday, consisted of people laughing and eating too much. Nobody was angry or making war plans to further attack Christmas.

Similarly, although, it is nice to be wished Happy Holidays, rather than Merry Christmas, few non-Christians are offended or upset when somebody wishes them a Merry Christmas. Few non-Christians are uncomfortable wishing a Christian a Merry Christmas either. We now live in a country where some people wish each other Happy Holidays and others wish each other Merry Christmas. Occasionally a Christian gets greeted wished Happy Holidays, while a Jew, Muslim or atheist gets wished Merry Christmas. In a world where they are real wars, injustices, murders and poverty, how is this possibly news, let alone evidence of a war? The answer is that it isn't news, except for among those gadflies and hucksters who have a stake in creating and cultivating the notion of a War on Christmas.

At the core of the War on Christmas is a need for the dominant religious group in American society, Christians, to feel like victims. This feeling is not shared by most, or even a significant proportion of Christians, but it is a motivation of performers like Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh whose enormous wealth is based heavily on an angry and alienated base of people who feel the world is turning agains them. For this reason, the War on Christmas makes good economic sense, at least for some.

Limbaugh and O'Reilly and others have, to a large extent, built their careers by making their listeners and fans feel like victims and, equally importantly, presenting powerful and, implicitly non-Christian, interests as the powers causing the problems. The War on Christmas fits so perfectly into this framework that if it did not exist, these victimhood entrepreneurs would have to create it themselves, which come to think of it, is exactly what they have done.

The War on Christmas story reflects the discomfort that many socially conservative media figures, and presumably at least some of their followers, feel with an increasingly diverse country where people are no longer afraid to express their views. This discomfort is a lot more real than the fake outrage that is expressed every year around this time because some small town in America is pressured to remove a nativity scene from a public place or because schoolchildren somewhere sing secular rather than religious Christmas carols.

Despite the substantial and increasing diversity in the US, the country remains an overwhelmingly Christian, and by the standards of the rest of the industrialized world, extremely religious, country. This is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future regardless of who does or does not celebrate Christmas. The real story of Christmas in America is not that it is under siege by non-Christians, but that it, like Christianity in general, has proven very adaptable. It is hard for anybody in the US, regardless of their beliefs to ignore Christmas. People of all faiths attend Christmas parties, know the lyrics to Christmas carols and can admire the beauty of Christmas trees. This does not reflect a war on Christmas, but the continued hegemony of Christianity in the US, as well as the genuine tolerance and openness of the American people both Christians and otherwise.