Although it was never an official plank of the Republican Party platform, Donald Trump repeatedly promised during the 2016 presidential election campaign to “bring back” the holiday greeting “Merry Christmas” — which, to hear him tell it, had been all but obliterated by the forces of political correctness. As president, Trump repeated the promise yet again in October 2017 at the Value Voters Summit in Washington, D.C., proclaiming, “We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”
Without using the phrase “War on Christmas,” Trump was essentially drawing a battle line in a century-old debate that is not just about the 25th of December, but a fundamental disagreement over whether the United States is a secular or a Christian country.
Former Fox News media personality Bill O’Reilly, the most notorious War-on-Christmas alarmist of the past two decades, recited his conspiratorial version of the controversy during a television broadcast in 2004:
All over the country, Christmas is taking flak. In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted 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, Macy’s, have done away with the Christmas greeting, “Merry Christmas.”
Now, all of this anti-Christian stuff is absurd, and may even be a bias situation. But the real reason it’s happening has little to do with Christmas and everything to do with organized religion.
Secular progressives 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. That’s what happened in Canada.
But Trump and O’Reilly are hardly the first to voice concern that some malignant social force — be it political correctness, secular progressives, Communists, Democrats, “the international Jew,” or all of the above — is bent on destroying Christianity (and with it, America itself) via a series of sly, incremental steps beginning with downgrading Christmas to an unmentionable holiday.
“Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth,” wrote Henry Ford in 1921, more than 80 years before Bill O’Reilly would utter similar complaints on Fox News.
The iconic American business tycoon and anti-Semite issued a series of pamphlets in the 1920s (collected under the title The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem) accusing American Jews of, among countless other crimes, engaging in a conspiracy to “abolish” Christmas celebrations in public places:
Not only do the Jews disagree with Christian teaching — which is their perfect right, and no one dare question it — but they seek to interfere with it. It is not religious tolerance in the midst of religious difference, but religious attack that they preach and practice. The whole record of Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and certain patriotic songs shows that.
What Ford called “Jewish opposition to Christmas” actually boiled down to a few instances of Jewish leaders challenging the teaching of Christianity in public schools — as when a Massachusetts school board was lobbied, and initially consented, to remove all references to Jesus from classroom “Christmas exercises” in 1912. Jewish groups also challenged classroom Bible readings, which were not uncommon at the time. However, the groups did not argue against Christianity itself, but rather launched a First Amendment challenge to proselytizing in public schools.
Yet Ford went so far as to accuse the Jewish owners of some of America’s great department stores (“the Levys and the Isaacs and the Goldsteins and the Silvermans”) of “profiteering” on the sale of Christmas merchandise while conspiring at the same time to undermine the religious significance of the holiday.
Christmas again became a battleground in the struggle over America’s identity in the 1950s, when a rise in religiosity after World War II reached its peak. A 1997 history of the period cited some astounding statistics about that trend:
On a typical Sunday morning in the period from 1955-58, almost half of all Americans were attending church — the highest percentage in U.S. history. During the 1950s, nationwide church membership grew at a faster rate than the population, from 57 percent of the U.S. population in 1950 to 63.3 percent in 1960.
A 1954 report in Women’s Wear Daily cited developments pointing to a nationwide “spiritual trend” in retail holiday presentations:
The Christmas Street Decoration Committee of the Waterloo [Iowa] Chamber of Commerce followed the lead of many other towns in Iowa putting “Christ back in Christmas.” To express this idea, a Nativity scene was place in Soldiers and Sailors Park here. It is lighted at night. A 46-inch aluminum star appears above the 15 life sized figures in the scene.
The post-World War II religious revival also had an impact on public school curricula. A 1955 resolution adopted by the National Council of the Churches of Christ (representing 30 Protestant denominations) explicitly called for the inclusion of religious teachings in classrooms:
It is expected that [public schools] shall teach that religion is an essential aspect of our national heritage and culture, that this nation subsists under the governance of God and that our moral and ethical values rest upon religious grounds and sanctions. To do otherwise would be to distort history.
Some Americans were alarmed at this last development, among them Jules Cohen, national coordinator for the prominent Jewish organization the National Community Relations Advisory Council, who warned in 1957 that “the principle of separation of church and state [is] under attack from many quarters and in a variety of ways.”
The pushback against increased religiosity was on display in a 1957 controversy over erection of a nativity scene at a small-town public high school in Ossining, New York. After the board of education approved the proposal for the display, officials received letters of protest from local residents arguing that it would violate the First Amendment. The board to reconsidered and ultimately rescinded their approval. They, in turn, were accused of “intolerance” in a now-familiar cycle. Redbook reported at the time:
Within a week the question of whether a religious display could properly be located on public-school property had degenerated into a bitter community wrangle. The Crèche Committee hotly insisted that the Board of Education hold a public meeting to reopen the question. The Rev. Frank Klausman, of Ossining Heights Church, charged that the members of the Board of Education “have allowed themselves to be coerced by a few and in the name of tolerance have committed an act of intolerance.”
These types of struggles brought out alarmists, most notably the far-right John Birch Society, whose pamphlet “There Goes Christmas?!” warned:
One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas — to denude the event of its religious meaning. … The UN fanatics launched their assault on Christmas in 1958, but too late to get very far before the holy day was at hand. They are already busy, however, at this very moment, on efforts to poison the 1959 Christmas season with their high-pressure propaganda. What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations.
The 1970s – 1990s
The civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s presented a head-on challenge to the conservatism of the ’50s, setting the stage for broader social changes (and reactions to those changes) over the next few decades. The ’70s and ’80s saw a shift toward greater recognition of and sensitivity toward Americans’ growing ethnic and religious diversity. Secularism was on the rise, too, as reflected in letters to newspaper editors complaining in the mid-’80s, much as Henry Ford had done in the ‘20s, that “Merry Christmas” was giving way to “Happy holidays” even as the big department stores maximized their profits via seasonal advertising.
The cultural change also reached in public schools, which saw increasingly diverse student populations at the same time that court rulings reaffirming the separation of church and state mandated the non-preferential treatment of religion in the classroom. The Los Angeles Times captured the transitional moment in a 1984 article:
When Danube Avenue Elementary School presented its first holiday program 25 years ago, it all seemed so easy.
Most of the students were Anglo and Christian, and the tone of the times dictated that those who didn’t celebrate Christmas would do their best to blend in with the majority.
But times and changed, and so has Danube. The school is now attended by Latinos, Asians, Christians and Jews. Some students travel to the Granada Hills campus from central Los Angeles neighborhoods where little English is spoken and Christmas celebrations don’t include visions of sugarplums. And the sensibilities of the 1980s state that the cultural traditions of all ethnic groups deserve equal time in the classroom.
The Supreme Court played an active role in secularizing public spaces throughout the decade. In 1980, the court ruled that posting the Ten Commandments in public schools is unconstitutional. In 1985, it found that Alabama’s “moment of silence” statute was unconstitutionally biased in favor of prayer. A 1987 ruling disallowed the teaching of “creation science” alongside evolution. And, apropos Christmas, the court decided in 1989 (in Allegheny County v. ACLU) that it is unconstitutional to erect a nativity scene on public property.
Ironically, these changes occurred amid a resurgence of conservatism signaled by the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980 and the rise of the evangelical Christian right, which continued into the 1990s and 2000s. The two-term presidency of Bill Clinton, a socially progressive Democrat elected in 1992, only exacerbated America’s continuing identity crisis. Opposition grew to the secularization that had been on the rise since the 1960s.
2000 and Beyond
As far as we know, the term “War on Christmas” was coined by conservative author Peter Brimelow, whose race-based critique of U.S. immigration policy, Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster (Harper Perennial, 1995), in many ways prefigured the white nationalist political movement of today.
In 1999, Brimelow launched the polemical web site VDARE.com (named after Virginia Dare, the first English child born in the Americas), which, besides being condemned by the Anti-Defamation League for its “racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant” postings, would become ground zero in the battle to “save” Christmas. Brimelow’s December 2000 post containing the first known mention of a “War on Christmas” warned readers that said war was “part of the struggle to abolish America.”
Part of Brimelow’s schtick was publishing annual compilations of the most egregious “attacks” on Christmas, citing the same kinds of examples Bill O’Reilly would later cite in his broadcasts:
“The City Manager in Eugene, OR has banned Christmas trees on city property. Reportedly he consulted with the People for the American Way and with the ACLU (usual suspects) and got their wholehearted support.”
“My children attend a private CATHOLIC school [in Shreveport, LA]. They have just been informed that ‘Happy Holidays’ will replace ‘Merry Christmas’ since the latter is ‘offensive’ to non-Christians. A parochial school, no less. P.S. this is the same school, which banned anything `Confederate` so as not to ‘insult’ the (literally) one or two blacks in the entire school.”
“The tipping point in the obliteration of Christmas came, I think, in the first year of the Clinton Administration. While everyone else was absorbed in the ‘gays in the military’ flap, I noted that the United States Postal Service had adopted the slogan, ‘We deliver for Yule.’ Since then, no Christmas from the USPS or, so far as I can tell, anything else related to the federal government.”
In 2004, the same year that Bill O’Reilly first declared the War on Christmas a national emergency, a group joined the fray called the Committee to Save Merry Christmas, which, using language not dissimilar to Henry Ford’s, said their purpose was “to protest the fact that big retailers profit from Christmas shopping dollars but refuse to mention the holiday by name.” The organization followed O’Reilly in calling for a boycott of Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and other retail outlets owned by Federated Department Stores to compel them to reinstate the phrase “Merry Christmas” in their holiday presentations and greetings to customers.
The following year, 2005, saw the publication of Fox News contributor John Gibson’s book The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Meanwhile, O’Reilly revised and extended his roster of “anti-Christmas” merchants, adding Sears, Kmart, Kohl’s, Target, Walmart, and Costco to the “naughty” list. Christian groups ranging from the American Family Association to the Catholic League joined the retail boycott just as Federated Department Stores, perhaps feeling the heat, reversed course and encouraged employees to start wishing their customers a good, old-fashioned “Merry Christmas” again.
By 2006, nearly all of the retailers in O’Reilly and crew’s gunsights had followed Federated’s lead and announced their intentions to use the word “Christmas” in their holiday greetings. O’Reilly declared victory in the War on Christmas. “You know, we did it last year, we won the war,” he announced on his radio show in December 2006. “Walmart and Macy’s and all the big stores are saying ‘Merry Christmas,’ and they’ve stopped ordering their employees not to say it — most of them.”
Despite the declared victory, O’Reilly went on touting the War on Christmas for years to come (most recently in 2016, months before his abrupt termination from Fox News), regaling his television audience with examples of holiday “political correctness” supposedly tearing apart the social fabric of the country.
Is There Really a War on Christmas?
The evidence suggests there is no actual conspiracy to erase Christmas and destroy American civilization in the process, although some people clearly perceive it to be the case. Belief in a “War on Christmas” seems to go hand-in-hand with the belief that the United States is a fundamentally Christian nation whose social fabric is weakened or torn by religious diversity and secularism.
The fear that Christmas is “under attack” has been a recurring, if not cyclical, phenomenon in the United States of America for the better part of the last century. It tends to flare up when anxieties about immigration, secularization, and other perceived threats to the established social order increase. But these only represent a “war” on the holiday if one sees Christianity, and Christmas in particular, as central to the nation’s identity — and if one sees the use of public space as essential to the religious celebration. After all, since the United States’ founding, there has never been a law preventing the celebration of Christmas in any way in individuals’ homes, churches, or private spaces.
If one sees the United States as a secular nation, one is unlikely to perceive Christmas as under attack — no more so than Yom Kippur, Ramadan, or any other religious tradition that goes largely uncelebrated in public and commercial spaces.
History shows there is a regular ebb and flow of faith and secularism in America, along with inevitable fluctuations in the ethnic and religious makeup of the country. These have contributed to changes in how Christmas is celebrated over time. Such changes have not always been welcomed by all, and have sometimes been seen (or at least presented) as pernicious, but they are not the result of any grand conspiracy.
We would be remiss not to point out that the one and only time Christmas was actually banned on what would later become U.S. soil, it was by Christians.
In 1659, the Puritan lawmakers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony followed the example of their brethren in England by issuing an edict outlawing the observance of Christmas (and other “superstitious” holidays):
For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offence of others, it is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof, that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon such accountants as aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay of every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county.
Why? Because, as befitted their name, the Puritans found feasting, wassailing, gift giving, and wishing one another a merry Christmas ungodly and sinful (we suspect not even the secularized greeting “Happy holidays” would have been acceptable to this lot).
Despite a 22-year ban on celebrating it (the law was repealed in 1681), Christmas survived unscathed to eventually become the most popular (not to mention durable) holiday celebrated in America.