Tuesday, December 25, 2024
By Steven L. Taylor

I was thinking just the other day that, despite popular perception, Christmas has not always been the holiday in the US that it currently is, neither in its basically universal observance, nor in its basic form. The latest sparking of this not-so-new thought was a reference to the “Merry Christmas”/”Happy Holidays” conflict as made by the pastor of our church this past Sunday. One can guess the basic gist of the comment.

What is striking about the notion that there is a war on Christmas is that at its core is the thesis that attacks on Christmas are attacks on centuries old traditions and rituals. However, that really isn’t the case. In many ways Christmas, and our attitude towards it, are relatively new. Because despite the feeling that Christmas must have always been a key American holiday, as well as a key Christian one, that, in fact, this is not the case.

Christmas as a national holiday of grand significance started to emerge in the middle 19th Century, and at that point was very much in the process of evolving to the celebration that it is today. Indeed, much of the way we celebrate Christmas is very much about commercial activity and secular/pagan rituals and symbols, making the holiday much more of a mélange than we normally like to admit, especially within Christianity.

In terms of Christianity writ large, Christmas has not always been a key celebration, and in some segments of the faith, was not celebrated at all (including a significant percentage that influenced early American Christians, and hence the lack of its original significance in early colonial and post-independence life). This is not to say that there aren’t sound reasons within the Christian faith to celebrate Christmas as a religious observance, but from a political/cultural point-of-view, it dampens the whole “War on Christmas” line of reasoning when one stops and realizes that Christmas as we know and understand it is not, as it might appear at first blush, a celebration two millennia in age. Really, from an American perspective it is only a century-and-a-half (roughly) in age—again, as we know, understand, and celebrate the season.

Along these lines, I would commend a piece into today’s WSJ: A Brief History of Christmas, which notes the attitudes by elements of the Christian church over the years to the celebration, as well as to some of the well-known secular (indeed, pagan) elements of the current holiday.1 It seems to me, at least, that it is more difficult to argue that there is a “war” aimed at destroying time-honored truths, when we recognize that much of what we do is both relatively new, and not all that religious.

Beyond any of the history/origins of the holiday, another thing that has struck me for time over the “War on Christmas” notion is that so much of what we do now regarding Christmas (even the most devote of Christians) is wholly secular in origins and application (much of the music, movies (even the classics), and decorations have nothing whatsoever to do with the Gospel of Luke, for example).

As such, I am not certain why hardcore secularists get all that upset about observations of the holiday2, nor do I understand fully why those who think that there is a war against Christmas think that the whole of the holiday is encapsulated in things like whether the clerk at Wal*Mart says “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays”(or vice versa)3. Why do we worry so much about whether retail outlets use the word “Christmas” or not? When Santa bellows, “Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night” or when Rudolph became significant “one foggy Christmas Eve” there was precious little about it that was theological in nature.

As I have argued before (see the links below), while I do understand that there are those who say “Happy Holidays” as a way of avoiding the “Christ” part of the word “Christmas,” more likely than not the “holidays” that they are wishing happiness upon are Christmas and New Years Day (the holiday season, as we have called it for decades), and almost all of us know that immediately. It seems that only when people like Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson started making a point of making a big deal of the issue, that most of us didn’t mind one bit if people said “Happy Holidays” or if store displays were “Holiday” displays instead of “Christmas” ones.

Ah well. Of course, I never thought of retail outlets as founts of theology…

I will confess that I finds it absurd that some find the utterance of the words “Merry Christmas” to be offensive in and of themselves. Of course, much of this debate is about hypersensitivity and offense-taking. Given, as a recent poll shows, that the vast majority of people in US at least marginally identify as Christian, one wonders sometimes were the outrage/war comes from anyway.

Just some thoughts on the subject on this Christmas evening, a bit rambling I will allow (but hey, it’s a holiday).

I have written about this before, by the way. I wrote a piece for the Mobile Register two years ago: What day is it? It’s Christmas Day and then there is this post: I Have a Confession to Make on the Merry Christmas/Happy Holidays business.

I hope that you all had a blessed day and I would like to wish you all a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.

  1. For example, it should be a well known fact that the date we celebrate Christmas is based not on the likely birth date of Christ, but of pagan summer (oops) winter solstice celebrations. []
  2. and yes, I wholly allow that there are those who do overreact to the holiday and its observance, such as those who find great offense at nativity scenes on public land []
  3. my anecdotal experience this year, btw, has been a lot of “Merry Christmas” and not much “Happy Holidays,” but then again, I do live in Alabama []
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7 Responses to “Some Thoughts on the “War on Christmas””

  • el
  • pt
    1. Political Mavens » A Little Politics with Christmas… Says:

      [...] I started thinking about some political issues concerning Christmas (namely the whole “war on Christmas” thesis) and composed a lengthy post on the subject, which can be read here: Some Thoughts on the “War on Christmas”. [...]

    2. Johanna Roberts Says:

      I liked your poliblog on Some Thoughts on the War on Christmas. Considering the Biblical account written by Luke, it’s difficult for me to justify celebrating Christmas with Christmas trees, yule logs, Santa Claus, “three” Magi, Jingle Bells, etc., etc. So…I don’t. Haven’t for years and I love not doing it, all except for the tendency to cop a superior attitude about the nots. Such as, not spending funds I don’t have for tinsely gifts. Not adding great mounds of wasted wrapping paper, gift packaging containers, disposable items, trees used for maybe two weeks and gobs of other stuff to our over-burdened waste dumps.
      Not promoting or fostering some very un-Christ like attitudes from the kids about what-I-am-getting-for-Christmas.

      I would however, like to say what I think that the war is about. It isn’t really revoling around saying “Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays” as much as a growing and not unfounded fear that anything and everything “Christian” is being marginalized. It is possible that in the not to far distant future, being of the Judeo-Christain belief, could be cause for mental lock-up or ever how godless society history repeats itself.

      In an effort to help stave off this calamity, I said,”Merry Christmas’ a lot this Holiday Season.

    3. Buckland Says:

      A couple of comments:

      Footnote 1: Since the time of Christmas was taken from Roman traditions soon afgter the conversion of the empire to Christianity (and since the entire empire was north of the equator), I’d guess that they were celebrating the winter solstice, not summer.

      Outrage is the coin of the realm these days. If I’m outraged I have a moral advantage over you in policy debate. This is probably not historic, but I trace it back to the Pollack jokes of the 70′s. Seemingly overnight something that was a part of the culture became something not done by cultured people. Similar things have happened to jokes about other groups and other things that may be associated (school mascot depictions, nooses have gone from an interesting knot to the equivalent of possessing heroin, etc.)

      This is just groups wanting their day to show more fealty to the cause than others. Analyzing phenomenon without including motivations is a losing cause.

    4. MSS Says:

      “basically universal observance.”

      There are indeed times when I feel like I live in a different universe. As someone raised Christian, by a devout Lutheran mother, but who never “bought” the central narrative one must accept to be a Christian–and who converted to Judaism as an adult–I am still not sure how to navigate this whole greeting thing.

      At a rational level, I like the “Merry Christmas” greeting. I know that the person giving it is unlikely to know I am a Jew, and is really just wishing me a season of joy and peace. I am all for that.

      But at a visceral level, I really dislike the assumption that I must celebrate Christmas, just like the the “universe” does. And, so while I would not call my reaction one of offense, it most certainly is one of discomfort.

      But I do not like “Happy Holidays.” Too bland. And “have a good holiday” is even worse. (Uh, any one in particular?) In any event, I have already had my holiday of the winter. It ended more than two weeks ago (straddling the new moon closest to the winter solstice, just like it always does).

      I had a colleague in England recently e-mail me and wish me a good Festive Season. I rather like that, and may take it up.

      On the nativity scenes in public places: Banish them, I say. I do take offense to that. And I was not mollified this year when the Oceanside city council decided to put up a Chanukiah (menorah for Chanukah) in front of city hall. In fact, for me, that compounded the offense. It seemed to be tokenism, and conveys the misleading impression that Chanukah is somehow the Jewish answer to Christmas. Of course, it is nothing of the sort. When city hall puts up a Sukkah next autumn, I will feel somewhat more mollified.

      On the prevalence of the greeting, I have noticed in these last two years that few (this year, none) of my students wished me a Merry Christmas while handing in the final exam, as has been the case by some in the past. But that may not be an indication of shifting cultural practice here in California. I may signify nothing more than that they know, from Fruits & Votes or other indications, that I am a Jew.

      In any event, that was a very thoughtful post, Steven. Thank you for it. And may you, your family, and all PoliBllog readers enjoy the rest of your Festive Season!

    5. Jan Says:

      It makes me think of the complaints I’ve heard recently about the war on Santa Claus. I’m sure that most people don’t even realize that our current notion of Santa (as a human-sized old man dressed in red) comes from a Coca-cola advertising campaign. If one pays close attention to the “Visit from St. Nick” poem, you will notice that while Santa is fat with a white beard, he is an elf not a man and his suit is “tarnished with ashes and soot”, but no mention is made of its color. And Old World Santas are thin and dressed like bishops.

    6. Jan Says:

      I take that back, maybe it does say he was dressed in red, but he was definitely an elf.

    7. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

      “War on Santa Claus”? Egads–I have missed that one.

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