Every other Wednesday in Fads!Crazes!Panics!, Luke T. Harrington looks at one of the random obsessions to have gripped the public mind in the recent past, and tries, in vain, to make sense of it all.
On December 7, 2004, we learned there was a war on Christmas.
“All over the country, Christmas is taking flak,” Fox News talking head Bill O’Reilly told us. “In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were allowed in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the ‘holiday tree,’ and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores—that’s Macy’s—have done away with the Christmas greeting ‘Merry Christmas.’”
Was it true? Eh. It all sort of depends on what you mean by “Christmas” and what you mean by “war.” The Denver parade O’Reilly spoke of had been going on for decades and had never allowed religious floats. Religious displays in public schools had been controversial for generations, for reasons that seem pretty obvious. The Macy’s thing was true, but…I dunno, is lip service from department stores really what Christianity needs?
O’Reilly’s critics were quick to point out that Christmas was not exactly going anywhere. Polls show somewhat consistently that about ninety percent of Americans observe Christmas in one way or another—significantly more, actually, than the number of Americans who identify as Christian. And basically from the day after Halloween on, it remained impossible to throw a rock without hitting a decorated tree, a string of lights, a crèche, or an inflatable Santa. Even that, though, sort of misses what O’Reilly was really concerned about: “Secular progressives,” he went on “realize that America as it is now will never approve of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation and many other progressive visions because of religious opposition. But if the secularists can destroy religion in the public arena, the brave new progressive world is a possibility.”
The downside, of course, to endlessly stoking anger over stupid stuff for profit is that some people might take it a bit too seriously—and that that overly serious anger might escape into the real world.
Several were quick to point out that this actually sounded a lot like something Henry “just-like-Elon-Musk-but-significantly-more-racist” Ford had written nearly a century earlier. In his 1920s-era newsweekly, The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem, Ford had written, “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth,” concluding that it was The Jews who were trying to undermine Christianity (along with mom, baseball, and apple pie) by pretending that Christmas was a secular holiday. O’Reilly had substituted “secular progressives” for Jews, because anti-Semitism isn’t what the cool kids do anymore, but it was largely the same rant.
The interesting thing about all of that is that, for the most part, Christmas really is a secular holiday, and sort of always has been, in America at least. This is a country founded by Protestants, and historically, an awful lot of Protestants just didn’t celebrate Christmas. American Baptists and Quakers regarded Christmas as an unnecessary addition to Scripture, while Puritans and Presbyterians saw it as a pagan abomination (which…the “Christmas = pagan” thing is a whole other misconception, which you can read about here). As Catholics and Lutherans slowly filtered into the country, celebration of Christmas slowly became more and more common, but it wasn’t until 1870—fairly late in the game, when you think about it—that President Grant finally made it a federal holiday, thus mainstreaming it once and for all. Which makes sense—we were all still pretty hungover from the Civil War (I mean, not Grant—he was just literally hungover), and we all needed a stiff drink of eggnog. At that point it had only been a century and a half since the Puritan colonies had out-and-out banned Christmas, so, yeah, we’d come a long way (though whether we’d gone in the right direction was a matter of perspective). So, by the time Henry Ford was ranting and raving about Christmas being abolished, it had only even been a generation or two since it was established. Which is…something to think about, for sure.
In any case, the backlash against O’Reilly’s fabrication of “The War on Christmas” was as swift as his declaration of it to exist. Notably, Jon Stewart, at the time the host of The Daily Show, sarcastically fired back at O’Reilly, “I, John Stewart, hate Christmas, Christians, Jews, morality.” (The antisemitic roots of O’Reilly’s crusade were not lost on Stewart, even if they were lost on O’Reilly himself.) And of course Slate, Salon, and their ilk all ran pieces to the effect of “Pssshhh, Christmas will be fine, you senile old man.” The bitter feud had begun, and the bitter boycotts commenced.
Of course, anyone standing a certain distance away from the “controversy” would have been able to see that O’Reilly and Stewart (along with the others on their respective sides) were playing the exact same game—and, judging by their own criteria, at least—they were both “winning.”
A TV host, after all, has only one job: to get people to tune in, and stay tuned in long enough that they see some ads. And, of course, the best way to get people to stick around is to evoke a strong emotional response in them—so, y’know, anger and/or fear. By making viewers think, “Grr, I can’t stand those horrible secular progressives!” and/or “Grrr, I can’t stand that idiotic Bill O’Reilly!” both men were able to feed the machine that kept their shows on the air and profitable.
The downside, of course, to endlessly stoking anger over stupid stuff for profit is that some people might take it a bit too seriously—and that that overly serious anger might escape into the real world. By 2016, when the mutual loathings across party lines had come to a fever pitch, noted guy-who-plays-a-rich-guy-on-TV Donald Trump found himself running for president, buoyed by the rage people like O’Reilly had been stoking for years. “If I become president,” Trump announced to frenzied cheers, “we’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas at every store.” Never mind that we’d never actually stopped saying it. The point was, he was bringing it back. Or something.
Fortunately, Americans are smart people who know the difference between entertainment and reality, so nothing came of this bizarre campaign. But gosh, can you imagine?