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Seeking an Armistice in the War on Christmas

What began with Bill O'Reilly has deteriorated into culture guerilla combat. But those who politicize the season are missing something.
War on Christmas

Lately the war on Christmas has come to resemble the Lebanese Civil War. That is to say, there are endless combatants and no one seems to remember what they’re fighting for anymore.

Once upon a time, the war on Christmas could be roughly divided into two sides: the American Civil Liberties Union versus The O’Reilly Factor. Back then, for all the good legal work it did, the ACLU had a nasty habit of swooping in on local parks and demanding that nativity scenes be removed. The First Amendment meant the public square needed to be scrubbed clean of everything Christian—that was how the ACLU saw it. Opposing them was Bill O’Reilly, who on his Fox News program fought back against the group’s litigious Swedenization, as well as attempts to force Christians to say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.” This, he charged, amounted to a war on Christmas. And that, he thought, was worthy of a regular segment.

Those were the innocent days of the war, back when we thought the boys would be home by, well, Christmas. Since then, the sides have splintered and the combat has become unconventional. Guerilla battles flare up in unexpected places only for the militants to vanish into the midnight clear. There was the Starbucks battle of 2015, after the coffee conglomerate switched its cup design from holiday-themed to plain red, drawing complaints that this was the same thing as forsaking Jesus. There was the “Baby It’s Cold Outside” skirmish of 2018, a counterstrike by the left, which claimed that the most suggestive of our Christmas songs was secretly an anthem of rape culture.

So it goes. The war on Christmas, like the Iraq war, was started by Fox News in the early 2000s, and, also like the Iraq war, continues to this day with little hope of resolution. For O’Reilly, the casus belli was always to defend what was an essentially fusionist holiday: you had the right to say “merry Christmas” to the greeter at your local 35-square-mile Walmart before rummaging around for an artificially intelligent ironing board. That isn’t nothing, surely. But it always seemed a bit trite to think the spirit of Christmas could be summed up in a preference for two little words. And is it really so wrong to say “happy holidays” in a country with so many Jews and Muslims? (I’ve always been partial to “season’s greetings,” which I think makes me a Maoist.)

Perhaps, then, it’s time to take stock of what the real threats to Christmas proper are. And maybe that means acknowledging, as have many with conservative politics writ large, that the economic component of the Christmas fusionist arrangement has begun to encroach on the traditional one. Black Friday shoppers bludgeoning each other to death with Xboxes does seem like a curious way of heralding the birth of Christ. And while Christmas church services still feel like part of the season—even those faint of faith feel inclined to go, as those Catholic “C&Eers” will tell you—they don’t seem anywhere near as obligatory as all the present giving, stocking stuffing, gift wrapping, office parties, secret Santas, sugar plums, stuff.

Such rampant consumerism has led a few to give up on the holiday season altogether. In that vein, if you’re looking for a real anti-Christmas Grinch, forget the left-wing hacks at the Trump-era ACLU and pick up Christopher Hitchens. The late atheist writer was a true hater of the holidays, and surprisingly, it was more their secular excesses that he objected to than their religious remembrances. In an (initially unpublished) essay for the Wall Street Journal, Hitchens griped that “the Christmas cycle imposes a deadening routine and predictability” that’s akin to “living for four weeks in the atmosphere of a one-party state.” We’re made to endure “the same songs and music played everywhere, all the time. The same uniform slogans and exhortations, endlessly displayed and repeated.”

Despite his ardent hatred of religion, Hitchens acknowledged that modern Christmas had been all but stripped of what had made it distinctly Christian. Instead the season had been gelatinized into a multicultural mélange, absorbing Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and many secular customs too. He notes that historically many Protestants, from Oliver Cromwell’s parliament to some American Pilgrims, detested Christmas and prohibited its celebration, viewing it as blasphemous excess. That isn’t Hitchens’ objection, yet there’s still a crusading morality beneath his argument, albeit one that’s more anti-corporate and iconoclastic. Christmas, he thinks, takes the spirit of giving and forces it, turns it into a ritual done out of necessity, which, in conjunction with other seasonal customs, amounts to a regime of enforced falseness.

You don’t have to subscribe to Hitchens’ atheism to agree with some of that. Yet it shouldn’t escape our attention that in writing off the season completely, Hitchens ends up aligning with some of the most fanatical elements of Christianity, albeit for different reasons. He rejects Christmas because it’s too conformist; the Puritans rejected it because it interfered with their own conformity; and we should reject both. Yes, there are days in December when the carols become unbearable (though it’s telling, isn’t it, that the best holiday songs are the religious ones, while whoever wrote “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” needs to be incarcerated). But the rituals of Christmas reach deeper into our psyches than just that.

What the holly and the candles and the bells add up to isn’t just a consumerist extravaganza; it’s something deeper, something transcendent. It’s about stillness, waiting, even fear, the kind that can only be conjured up when night descends early and the cold wind blows. It’s about the best of the virtues, kindness and charity and love, underscored by a wonder that casts our deeds as shadows on the candlelit wall, gives us a glimpse of their ethereal dimensions. Halloween is thought to be our eeriest holiday; not so. There’s a reason Christmas has behind it a long tradition of ghost stories, with Scrooge’s torment at the hands of the dead only the most familiar.

That Christmas milieu is still there today, amid all the twinkling yard clutter. It’s available even to those who don’t believe in the Christ story, just as late November gratitude can still be practiced by those who wince at Thanksgiving’s oversimplified Pilgrims-and-Indians narrative. Yet surely the milieu’s origins are in Christianity: the anticipation of the savior’s birth, the babe destined to be bloodied, the coming of our salvation. That’s a reason for joy; it’s also slightly terrifying. Yet the joy is there all the same. And that’s what those of us who are political need to remember about Christmas: it’s a festival, not a damned battlefield. The real war on Christmas isn’t between left and right; it’s between normal people and those who insist on ruining everything with ideological combat. Think of the scene in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when Dante and Mr. Casey upend Christmas dinner with their fierce arguments over Irish independence. The best way to observe the season is to not do this, to ignore the dreary puritans in favor of family, good food, generous drink, and cleansing peace.

As for the war on Christmas, perhaps it finally is winding down. Donald Trump has announced that we are free to say “merry Christmas” again—we elected him president, you see, so forth we go. Generalissimo O’Reilly, meanwhile, has declared victory. How long until the provincial wings are brought in line with their commanders we cannot be sure. But this much we do know: the only thing worse than those who commercialize Christmas are those who politicize it.



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