“Merry Christmas” may seem an unlikely political rallying cry, but Donald Trump employed it to great effect before and after his victory in the 2016 presidential election. Supporters cheered every time he railed against “the forces of political correctness” and said “We’re bringing back ‘Merry Christmas.'”
Despite making the idea his own, Trump was hardly the first to proclaim that Christmas is “under attack.” His predecessor, President Obama, was frequently on the receiving end of charges that he and other progressive Democrats were bent on destroying the Christian holiday. Proof is lacking, however, that that is, or ever was, the case.
Comparisons between the two presidents’ allegedly opposing attitudes toward celebrating the holiday persisted well into 2017, with Trump announcing during his first Christmas tree lighting ceremony that he had brought back “Merry Christmas” to the White House.
In the interests of teasing out the truth about all this, we’ve fact-checked the most prominent claims concerning Trump, Obama, and the so-called war on Christmas:
CLAIM: Before Trump, Americans had stopped saying “Merry Christmas.”
STATUS: Mostly false.
On numerous occasions both before and after becoming president, Donald Trump told supporters that “Merry Christmas” had become a thing of the past.
“You go into a department store,” he said during a stump speech in January 2016. “When was the last time you saw ‘Merry Christmas’? You don’t see it anymore. They want to be politically correct. If I’m president, you will see ‘Merry Christmas’ in department stores, believe me, believe me.”
Trump was echoing a complaint people have been making for the better part of 100 years: Christmas is too secularized. Henry Ford said as much in 1921: “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth.”
Most often it’s couched in terms of people like department store greeters using a religiously neutral phrase like “Happy holidays” in place of “Merry Christmas.” And there have indeed been periods in American history when cultural preferences swung in a generally more secular direction and it was a popular sentiment to be as inclusive as possible in one’s holiday greetings.
What Trump and other present-day Christmas warriors seem unaware of, however, is that the last time saying “Merry Christmas” was an actual issue was in the early 2000s, when there was a trend among the larger retail chains to encourage employees to favor secular expressions of holiday cheer over religious ones. Former Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, among others, made much of this, calling it a “War on Christmas” and instigating national boycotts of businesses guilty of the affront.
This was a battle that O’Reilly declared victory in, however, when companies like Walmart, Target, Costco, and Macy’s owners Federated Department Stores announced in 2006 that they were changing their policies and reverting to “Merry Christmas” as the preferred holiday greeting. Ten years later in 2016, O’Reilly repeated his victory cry, saying, “Most companies stopped the nonsense and Merry Christmas became a common greeting once again.” President Trump must have missed that show.
We are also obliged to point out that “Happy holidays” and “Season’s greetings” are venerable salutations with their own longstanding pedigrees. The latter dates from the late nineteenth century. The use of “Happy holidays” in the United States dates back to the 1860s (if not earlier), and, especially for Christians who also observe the season of Advent, need not evoke secular connotations at all.
CLAIM: The phrase “Merry Christmas” did not appear on President Obama’s holiday cards.
Those arguing that President Barack Obama held a grudge against Christmas could say they found evidence to support their claim in his administration’s annual holiday cards:
The Trump family’s first Christmas card contains a word that was noticeably absent from all eight of Obama’s Christmas cards: CHRISTMAS! pic.twitter.com/gg4y1KYHFK
— Joe Walsh (@WalshFreedom) November 29, 2017
As far as we can tell, President Obama never used the phrase “Merry Christmas” on any of the official holiday cards created during his eight years in office:
These cards were typically accompanied by messages wishing joy and happiness during the holiday season. In 2015, for instance, the card read: “With gratitude and cheer, we send our warmest wishes for health and happiness this holiday season.”
The substitution of a secular message for “Merry Christmas” was not unprecedented. In 1929, for instance, Herbert Hoover sent out cards to cordially reciprocate “holiday greetings.” Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, Carter, and Clinton each sent out cards featuring phrases such as “Seasons Greetings” and “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” at least once during their presidencies.
And although President Obama didn’t use “Merry Christmas” on his annual card, the word “Christmas” did appear on all eight of the White House Christmas ornaments produced during his presidency:
CLAIM: Obama never used the phrase “Merry Christmas.”
Several rumors holding that President Obama had banned Christmas in one way or another were circulated during his eight years in office. Although these rumors were all debunked (no, he didn’t order the military to stop saying the word “Christmas,” or ban nativity scenes, or prevent citizens from sending Christmas cards to military members serving overseas, or ban Christmas trees), many were left with the impression that Obama took an anti-Christmas stance and that phrases such as “Merry Christmas” were frowned upon during his administration.
President Donald Trump reignited interest in these rumors when he tweeted in December 2017 that he was proud to be saying Merry Christmas “again,” implying that he was never allowed to utter the phrase in preceding years:
People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 25, 2017
But President Obama never banned or discouraged the use of the phrase “Merry Christmas.” In fact, he himself uttered that specific greeting on a number of occasions. We searched Obama’s Twitter history and found more than a dozen messages which featured the festive phrase:
Merry Christmas, and happy holidays to you and yours—big or small. pic.twitter.com/knZUoQidcl
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) December 25, 2015
MSNBC also compiled a video featuring President Obama using this exact phrase throughout his presidency:
CLAIM: President Donald Trump sometimes uses the phrase “Happy holidays.”
Although most of the War on Christmas vitriol we’ve seen was focused on Obama’s alleged abhorrence for the phrase “Merry Christmas,” we also saw some people accuse President Trump of wishing people “Happy holidays”:
Presented without a comment: 🎄 pic.twitter.com/p7TQoDOIyH
— Ricky Davila (@TheRickyDavila) December 25, 2017
Both of these tweets are real. Although President Trump was known to use phrases such as “Happy holidays” and “Holiday season” in the past, he never seemed to have any particular allegiance to these expressions. He also frequently used “Merry Christmas” before running for President in 2016:
From my family to yours…I want to wish you all a very merry Christmas!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 24, 2012
Just as President Trump used both phrases on different occasions, so did President Obama:
Happy holidays! pic.twitter.com/RioiEHcl
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) December 23, 2012
Jacobs, Sarah. “Happy Holidays from the White House: See the Presidents’ Christmas Cards, from Coolidge to Obama.”
Business Insider. 21 December 2016.
Hargrove, Channing. “A Look Back at the Obama White House Christmas Cards Through the Years.”
Teen Vogue. Retrieved 27 December 2017.
McGill, Andrew. “Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays, Round 2,016.”
The Atlantic. 20 December 2016.
Pruitt, Sarah. “The War of Words Behind ‘Happy Holidays.'”
History.com. 14 December 2017.