So, does the “War on Christmas” exist or not? Is there a concerted effort by secularists to eradicate open acknowledgements of Christmas from the public square as they remove creches, censor Christmas Carols and forbid store employees and government workers from uttering the forbidden words, “Merry Christmas?” Or is the “War on Christmas” really nonexistent and phony, a clever and cynical ploy concocted by leaders of the Religious Right to rile up the emotions of its gullible followers for increased fundraising at the end of the year? Or, in the alternative, is the “War on Christmas” really hyped up by Fox News in order to boost its ratings? So which narrative is correct? Does the “War on Christmas” exist or not?
I have been pondering this question this December because I find it suprising, as one who has dealt with a number of Christmas censorship lawsuits and controversies over the years. In fact, I found in the dusty recesses of my office bookshelf a copy of a pamphlet I wrote for Concerned Women for America that it published in 1987(!) addressing what the Constitution permits or prohibits for public Christmas celebrations. The book recounts a case I worked on with Mike Farris involving an Orlando-area school district that prohibited student choirs from singing religious Christmas carols, and removed all student artwork from classroom walls that depicted the birth of Christ. The booklet details various court cases by the American Civil Liberties Union to ban religious Christmas carols in public schools and to remove creches. I was trying to discuss actual legal cases in the booklet, not write fiction.
Also, I recall a flight on a major airlines several years ago. When we landed, the flight attendant wished us a “Happy Holidays” over the intercom. As I left, I asked her if her company allowed its employees to say “Merry Christmas” to passengers. She said, “oh no, I would be written up if I did that.” So I am suprised when commentators scoff at these actual accounts and and claim that there is no “War on Christmas.” What? I was there! Are you denying reality? Those things actually happened! I feel like Neil Armstrong listening to someone argue that NASA faked my Apollo moon landing!
I want to be charitable towards those who deny that any “War on Christmas” exists. (this is the Christmas season, you know). So, I ponder how is it that intelligent, thoughtful people would look at all of this evidence and conclude that no ”War on Christmas” exists? How can equally intelligent, thoughtful people look at what is going on in American society and come to the exact opposite conclusions, and see a major effort to censor Christmas?
I believe there is a way to explain these seemingly irreconcilable views: The two sides define the “War on Christmas” controversy differently, which means they look to different sets of facts and evidence, which leads them to different conclusions on whether the ”War on Christmas” actually exists or not. Let me illustrate the difference this way:
Person Who is Skeptical About a “War on Christmas:” “I see Christmas everywhere. I visited my local shopping mall and I saw the stores filled with Christmas decorations – green boughs, red ribbons, and gold ornaments hanging everywhere. I heard Bing Crosby singing, ‘White Christmas’ and Mannheim Steamroller playing ‘Deck the Halls’ all over the mall. Santa Claus sat on a big chair in the center of the food court, with a long line of parents and children lined up to sit on his lap. I see Christmas everywhere! Grandiose productions of ‘A Christmas Carol’ with Scrooge and Tiny Tim play endlessly on T.V. and at local community theaters. People at the office wear gaudy red and green sweaters and ply me with homemade Christmas cookies. I don’t see any ‘War on Christmas.’ It must be a calloused effort by religious conservatives to whip up the masses for fundraising purposes.”
Person Who Agrees that Christmas Is Being Censored: I go shopping for Christmas presents at my local mall. I notice that all of the Christmas music played there carefully avoids any mention of the birth of Jesus Christ. ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and ‘Jingle Bells’ dominate the tunes played to the shoppers. Signs in stores say only, “Seasons Greetings” and studiously avoid mentioning ’Christmas.’ The clerks greet me with “Happy Holidays,” but never say “Merry Christmas,” except when their boss is distracted and the employee utters the words quickly and under his breath. My fifth grader comes home from his elementary school telling me that the choir teacher has eliminated “Silent Night” and “Away in the Manger” from the repetoire to be sung at this year’s “Winter Concert” because some parent objected. Those songs will be replaced with ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ and some Kwanzaa song. Also, he brought home a list of things that he cannot write on his “holiday” cards that we give to his fellow students – no “Merry Christmas,” nothing about “Christ” or “Jesus,” no angels, shepherds or wise men, etc. I am so frustrated with this nonsense that I am thinking about having my son distribute cards to his friends that say, “M_____ C_____ and a Happy New Year.” As a Christian, I feel so marginalized by all of this. I am so tired of the secular, ACLU-types with their egg shell sensitivities, reacting with outrage to any reference to the Birth of Christ and their systematic efforts to intimidate all of us into silence.”
These two sets of people are defining the “War on Christmas” differently, so they find different facts to be relevant to their evaluation. In order to find common ground to have a discussion about the “War on Christmas,” we need a common definition on what it is and is not. The debate is not whether there are people working to totally eradicate anything to do with Christmas – like 17th Century Puritans eliminating all references to Christmas. No one is claiming that the U.S. is to Christmas as North Korea is to religious liberty. That would be foolish. Of course secularists are content to allow stores to decorate with nonthreatening red and green, and to play secular, non-religious Christmas songs over the loud speakers. But that is not what the debate is all about.
The real issue defining the “War on Christmas” is the efforts by some to eliminate public references to the religious aspects of Christmas as celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. The battle is NOT over the total elimination of Christmas. No one objects to the celebration of the secular aspects of Christmas, so they remain untouched in our culture. Therefore, I can understand why some fail to see any “War on Christmas” when they see Christmas celebrations everywhere. But these are frequently celebrations of Christmas that are stripped of its Christian roots.
That is what people who see a “War on Christmas” are responding to with their objections and protests. Many who believe that Christmas is the birth of Christ feel alienated and marginalized when this major holiday that most Americans celebrate is neutered of its religious aspects when celebrated publicly. Many find Christmas as one of the cultural cords that unite us as a national community, and they object to people who want to sever that cord by what they perceive as petty objections to benign acknowledgements of the religious roots of Christmas.
Now, if readers are not convinced, let me offer this analogy that my daugther Jenna came up with. Imagine if some organization started filing lawsuits to stop the reading of the Declaration of Independence and the singing of patriotic songs on the Fourth of July because they found them offensive. They object to this needless censorship. If someone else said, “I don’t see any ‘War on the Fourth of July.’ I see plenty of family picnics, small town parades and fireworks displays. These self-appointed ‘Patriots’ are just exaggerating to raise money from gullible people during the slow summer months.” We would say that the doubters are defining the Fourth of July differently than those who object to the censorship of the Declaration and of patriotic songs. The same thing is happening here with Christmas.
Also, as one who has worked as an attorney for conservative Christian organizations for over 25 years, I can state emphatically that the “Religious Right” could not have manufactured a phony “War on Christmas” and dupe gullible Evangelicals, conservative Catholics, etc., to accept such a “war” that really does not exist. The reason many people agree that there is a “War on Christmas” is because they experience first hand the pressure to censor the religious aspects of Christmas expressions. They are like the flight attendant I talked to who was told by her boss not to wish passengers a “Merry Christmas.” If people did not personally experience the secularist intimidation to get rid of the religious aspects of Christmas from public expression, Fox News, Religious Right leaders, etc., could not bambozzle them to think it exists when it really does not.
So I don’t think it advances the debate for people to deny that efforts to censor the public displays of the religious aspects of Christmas exist. The debate should be over whether these public expressions about the birth of Christ at Christmas divide us or bring us together. My thought is that with so many forces in American culture drawing us apart and fragmenting us, Christmas is one cultural bond that almost all Americans share and celebrate, whether Christian or not. It is a season whose message encourages people to love others, to give generously to others, and to think of principles and values greater than themselves, like loving God who sent a Savior for us. Censoring and impeding these messages because of extreme and arcane interpretations of the Establishment Clause seems, well, Scrooge-like.
Yes, Virginia, there is a “War on Christmas,” if it is defined as efforts to censor the public expression of the religious aspects of Christmas.