The War On Christmas
It began last year with a series of Fox News reports called “Christmas Under Siege.” Earlier this year, Fox News host John Gibson gave the movement its name when he published The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Fox News aired 58 segments covering the supposed “War” between November 28 and December 2. CNN and MSNBC have run stories on the “War,” a group backed by Jerry Falwell is offering legal representation to anyone “facing persecution for celebrating Christmas,” and ads have appeared promising that Samuel Alito will protect Christmas if his Supreme Court nomination is approved. Bill O'Reilly is leading the charge.
All of which might be great if anyone were actually attacking Christmas, but this “War,” like others I can think of, “defends” Christmas against a nonexistent threat.
Believe it or not, the main thing that has O’Reilly up in arms is the phrase “Happy Holidays,” which really is just good manners. Christmas is not the only December holiday: every culture and religion has a December or Solstice festival of some kind. Christians celebrate Christmas. Jews mark the year’s shortest, darkest days with a Festival of Lights. Hindus brighten the night with firecrackers and lamps on Diwali, Buddhists celebrate Buddha’s enlightenment on Rohatsu, and many African-Americans celebrate Kwanzaa. Wishing well to others who don’t share our faith is exactly what Jesus, who taught us to treat others as we wish to be treated, would expect. Not to mention Emily Post.
I’m especially open to acknowledging non-Christian holidays at this time of year because Christmas has many non-Christian roots. The Bible doesn’t say Jesus was born on December 25; Luke’s description of flocks in open fields suggest He was born during Spring lambing. The early Church neither knew nor cared what Jesus’ birthday was: Origen and Arnobius thought only pagans should celebrate the gods’ birthdays, and other Church Fathers thought Jesus was born on various dates in January, April, or May. The first Christmas masses were celebrated on January 8, but in 336 A.D. Christmas was moved to December 25, the Roman Winter Solstice, to coincide with the birthday festivals of the Phrygian, Persian and Roman sun-gods and the national Roman holiday, Saturnalis.
Likewise, non-Christian rituals underly most Christmas traditions. Evergreens and Christmas trees are rooted in Germanic solstice celebrations. The Viking god Odin left gifts of food on poor people’s hearths. Pre-Christian Scandinavians celebrated “Yule” by decorating their homes with prickly holly to snag evil spirits. Druids hung mistletoe over their doorways, and kissing under that mistletoe originated in Norse mythology.
Christmas was not an important Christian holiday until relatively recently. The Puritans discouraged Christmas celebrations as unbiblical; Cromwell and some New England colonies banned Christmas celebrations altogether. Scrooge, in expecting his employee to work on Christmas Day, was in the majority. In America, workplaces, schools and the U.S. Congress were open on Christmas Day until the 1800s, and in the South, Christmas was an adult drinking celebration – wassailing – similar to today’s New Years Eve. Christmas trees weren’t common in America until 1850, when a fad was started by a popular magazine showing Queen Victoria and her German-born husband decorating one. New York didn't erect its first community Christmas Tree until 1912.
According to the Christian liturgical calendar, we shouldn’t even be celebrating Christmas yet: it is Advent. Christmas carols aren't sung in liturgical churches until the 25th. Christmas, to a Christian, begins on Christmas Day. Until then, “Merry Christmas” makes little sense.
Knowing all this, I am glad to share the season with others. It’s both accurate and courteous, and not at all irreligious, to wish others “Happy Holy Days” rather than assume they celebrate “Christ’s Mass.”
All of which would be merely amusing, except that it’s turning mean-spirited. The “War On Christmas” has the potential to do real harm.
For one thing, O’Reilly is denigrating Jesus’ teachings by contributing to the commercialization of Christmas. The Bible says “every knee shall bend and every head shall bow” in honor of Jesus. O’Reilly turned that on its head by saying “[e]very company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born. Without Christmas, most American businesses would be far less profitable.” That’s blasphemy. (It’s also hypocrisy: O’Reilly publicized a blacklist of retailers whose advertisements say “Happy Holidays” while his own website advertised “Fox News Holiday Ornaments.”)
Buying and giving gifts isn’t itself bad. Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol to encourage charitable giftgiving during an economic depression. However, he was advocating buying a goose for a poor family, not a widescreen TV for your own child. Today, retailers’ profitability depends on a robust Christmas shopping season, and The Economist magazine estimates that emotionally-charged purchases lead Christmas shopper to pay $4 billion more each year than their purchases are actually worth. That’s unhealthy, both economically and spiritually. It would be better to abandon the pagan custom of giftgiving, or spend our money charitably, than allow Christmas to deteriorate into a secular Saturnalia.
As a Christian, I’m also astounded and bothered by O’Reilly’s own efforts to turn Christmas from a spiritual holiday into a secular one. Not only does he emphasize shopping above all else, but he describes Christmas as “a national public holiday... Federal holiday, everybody gets off, no mail delivered, everybody shuts down. Federal holiday.... To honor a philosopher, Jesus... A man was born, his name is Jesus, he had a philosophy, the philosophy was incorporated by the Founding Fathers to make up the United States of America, U.S. Grant signs into law the holiday, Christmas.”
Memorial Day is a “public holiday.” Christmas is something more. Even if Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, it is a “holy day” to us; President Grant had nothing to do with it. And to many Christians, Jesus was more than a philosopher, but a unique Savior whose existence changed the world. O’Reilly is entitled to believe in a watered-down, government-sponsored, Jesus-as-mere-philosopher "Christmas," but that's different than the Christmas I celebrate, and he should not pretend to speak for me.
Worst of all, the “War” is deteriorating into antisemitism. Burt Prelutsky, a columnist and writer on the conservative website TownHall.com who, remarkably, is himself Jewish, has taken O’Reilly’s side by framing “The War on Christmas” in blatantly antisemitic terms: “I blame my fellow Jews. When it comes to pushing the multicultural, anti-Christian, agenda, you find Jewish judges, Jewish journalists, and the ACLU, at the forefront.... [M]any Jews won’t be happy until they pull off their own version of the Spanish Inquisition, forcing Christians to either deny their faith and convert to agnosticism or suffer the consequences.... This is a Christian nation, my friends... I say it behooves those of us who don’t accept Jesus Christ as our savior to show some gratitude to those who do.”
Our nation was founded on the principle of religious pluralism. Thomas Paine thought the word “tolerance” didn’t go far enough: he didn’t want any religion to be in a position to “tolerate” or judge another. Ben Franklin contributed money to every church in Philadelphia, including a synagogue, and even raised money to build a hall for itinerant preachers so that, in his words, "if the Mufti of Constantinople were to send a missionary to preach Mohammedanism to us, he would find a pulpit at his service." In the late 1700s George Washington, John Adams and a unanimous Senate negotiated and approved a treaty with a Muslim nation promising that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The Founders were men of faith, but not of one particular faith, and a narrow insistence on the primacy of one holiday or one religion over all others runs completely counter to the Founders’ spirit – is, in fact, unAmerican.
I don’t want Christmas banished from the public square, but I don’t believe there’s any chance of that happening. My non-Christian neighbors, on the other hand, risk having their faith ignored and diluted in the hoopla of “my” holiday. As the dominant religious group, Christians should be gracious enough to share the limelight with others who also offer messages of hope and grace. Such selflessness is what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way....” We are at our best, as Christians and as Americans, when we do not insist on our own way; when we treat others, even others of different faiths, with generosity and love.
The greatest lesson of 9/11 was that religious intolerance is itself intolerable: those who insist that their religion is superior, and arrogate to themselves the right to judge or demean those who believe differently, understand neither us nor God. The best response to such intolerance is to demonstrate its opposite, by embracing those who are unlike us. Here in Eugene, for example, Christians responded to 9/11 by joining with a startling array of Muslims, Jews, Sufis, Buddhists, and others in monthly interfaith prayer services that are still taking place, over four years later. That’s faith. The Register-Guard newspaper supported this interfaith dialogue with a regular feature showcasing the faith stories of diverse people. Heartfelt religion in a fairly liberal daily newspaper: that’s courage. Readers, in turn, open their hearts and minds to those different faith perspectives without judgment or prejudice. That’s love. There is no war against anyone’s religion here, just sincere and pluralistic and emotionally brave responses to a terrible and misguided act of anger and intolerance. How wrong it seems, in comparison, to see faith as a war to be won against the other, and how silly to waste our lives worrying about the way we are greeted in stores.
Of course, there always have been demagogues who pretend to be holy men; the Bible particularly warns Christians to be on guard against such charlatans. “The War On Christmas” is one such deception. It’s O’Reilly and his friends, not an imaginary, faithless, liberal cabal, who are undermining Christmas. People of sense and goodwill, of all faiths and no faith, need to resist that disingenuity. We can start by simply listening to those who believe differently than we do, and learning what this season means to them.
SUPPLEMENT, DEC. 12, 2005: Well, President Bush and the G.O.P. have taken sides in the “War On Christmas,” and at least on the surface, it looks like the right side. As he does every year, the President has sent greeting cards to supporters – 1.4 million of them this year, paid for by the Republican Party. And they wish people... drum roll please...
A “Happy Holiday Season.”
”This month, as in every December since he took office, President Bush sent out cards with a generic end-of-the-year message, wishing 1.4 million of his close friends and supporters a happy "holiday season."”
Of course, those cards were ordered and printed long before Bill O’Reilly unleashed the Reindeer of War, but even so, can our diligent and highly professional “serious” television media stop running stories about the nonexistent “War” yet, so it can focus on the issues that really affect America?