Henry Ford, the famed industrialist and notorious anti-Semite, once pontificated that Jews were ruining Christmas.
“The whole record of the Jewish opposition to Christmas...shows the venom and directness of [their] attack,” Ford carped in an early 1920s work he titled The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem.
The automaker went on to detail various localized Jewish “attacks” against the popular holiday.
“Christmas celebrations or carols in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, St. Paul and New York met with strong Jewish opposition,” he claimed. “Local Council of Jewish Women of Baltimore petitions school board to prohibit Christmas exercises” and “[a]t request of a rabbi, three principals of Roxbury, Mass., public schools agree[d] to banish Christmas tree and omit all references to the season from their schools.”
So effective were these alleged Jewish actions against Christmas, Ford declared, that in one year “most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth.”
It is striking how much Ford’s claims of Jewish efforts to undermine the celebration of Christmas nearly a century ago mirror modern Religious Right claims of a “war on Christmas.” While present-day fundamentalist zealots tend to blame atheists for what they believe is the gradual erosion of the religious aspects of Christmas, research shows that this “war” is not something that was cooked up by the Fox News Channel – though that is where the battles in this supposed conflict tend to play out today.
While it is not known exactly who fired the first shot in the war – or when – it is clear that far-right Christians have long used this phony conflict as an opportunity to demonize their enemies and force their religious beliefs on others.
When the Religious Right rants about the “war on Christmas” it is expressing fear that the holiday is becoming secularized, and no other single entity feeds far-right fantasies about this supposed “war” more than the Fox News Channel.
An early Fox salvo occurred on Dec. 7, 2004, with a segment on “The O’Reilly Factor” called “Christmas Under Siege.” In a rant that will certainly live in infamy, host Bill O’Reilly said Christmas was threatened on multiple fronts.
“All over the country, Christmas is taking flak,” O’Reilly opined. “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 – that’s Macy’s – have done away with the Christmas greeting ‘Merry Christmas.’”
From that moment, O’Reilly positioned himself as something of a general in the fight to save Christmas from the evils of a pluralistic society. Year after year, O’Reilly made similar claims about the threats to Christian belief posed by the supposed “war.” Naturally, some of these scare stories fired up the Fox crowd – to the point of inspiring piles of angry mail and sometimes even vandalism.
In 2008, O’Reilly went on a tirade over a private display put up at the Washington State Capitol asking that “reason prevail” during the “season of the Winter Solstice.” After O’Reilly’s segment aired, then-Gov. Christine Gregoire’s office said it received up to 200 vicious phone calls per hour. The sign was even stolen at one point and later found in a ditch. In 2012, O’Reilly attacked then-Gov. Lincoln Chaffee of Rhode Island because he had the audacity to refer to the official tree at the statehouse as a “holiday tree.”
“Mr. Chafee wants to ignore traditions of America and build a more inconclusive nation where Judeo-Christian philosophy is tamped down,” O’Reilly huffed. “That’s the big picture here. That’s the big picture, it’s what it’s all about. The secular progressives want a new America, and traditional Christmas isn’t a part of it.”
When New York Times columnist Gail Collins dared write in 2013 that the so-called war is “imaginary,” O’Reilly fired back that Collins is in “denial.”
After 10 years of fighting against so-called “secular progressives,” O’Reilly decided he had won the war – even though News Corp., the parent company of Fox News, referred to November/December as the “holiday season” in its August 2014 annual report.
“I won the ‘War on Christmas,” O’Reilly boasted on NBC’s “Late Night with Seth Meyers” last December. “I’ve been doing this for about 10 years, and this is the only year we have not had a store that commanded its employees not to say ‘Merry Christmas.’ It’s over. We won.”
The Religious Right, however, clearly does not agree with O’Reilly that the war is over. Perhaps the most maddening development in recent years as far as fundamentalist zealots are concerned is the growing tendency of retailers to eschew “Merry Christmas” in favor of “Happy Holidays.” In response to this supposed slight by corporations that are simply trying to be inclusive, the American Family Association (AFA) appointed itself the “Merry Christmas” police.
AFA President Tim Wildmon claimed that as recently as 2005 the “Happy Holidays” epidemic was so rampant that 80 percent of retailers used generic messages in place of “Merry Christmas” purely out of a desire to be politically correct. (In reality, such accusations are not new. In his 1993 book The Trouble With Christmas, Tom Flynn wrote that some American retailers worked together after World War II on an initiative called “Put Christ Back In Christmas” amid complaints that the holiday had become overly commercial.)
Since at least 2009, AFA, a Tupelo, Miss.,-based group best known for its vile anti-gay views, has annually produced a “Naughty-or-Nice” list documenting how often major retailers use the word “Christmas” in their stores or advertisements.
The list, which is presumably compiled by employees who spend hours combing through ads, is broken into four categories: “5-star,” for companies that “promote and celebrate Christmas on an exceptional basis”; “nice” for those who use Christmas “on a regular basis”; “marginal” for corporations that “refer to Christmas infrequently, or in a single advertising medium, but not in others” and “naughty” for any organization that “may use ‘Christmas’ sparingly in a single or unique product description, but as a company, does not recognize it.”
Examples of “5-star” companies from 2014 include AFA’s own online store as well as Hobby Lobby, while a few that landed on the “naughty” side were Barnes & Noble, Office Depot and Victoria’s Secret.
Any company that earns a “naughty” designation faces a potential boycott at the AFA’s behest, and despite the fringe nature of that group, corporations have been known to give into AFA’s demands. In 2013, clothing retailer Gap, Inc. agreed to swap “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas” after several years on the “naughty” list.
“As a global retailer, we embrace the diversity of our customers and respect a variety of traditions and faith during the holidays, including Christmas,” Bill Chandler, a vice president at Gap, wrote at the time. “Starting today, every Gap Outlet window will have signs that say ‘Merry Christmas’ along with Christmas trees and wreaths throughout their stores.”
As of 2014, Gap remained a “nice” company.
Although stories about the “war on Christmas” are perpetuated today primarily by Fox and AFA, the supposed war is much older than either organization would have you believe. The first combatants in the conflict were, in fact, a group of well-known Christians. The Puritans, America’s first fundamentalists, were deeply opposed to celebrating Christmas for a few reasons.
For one, Christmas is not celebrated in the Bible, and many scholars point out that many of its features were adapted from Pagan holidays. For another, it was celebrated by the Church of England – an institution the Puritans rejected. And finally, the Puritans felt Christmas tended to be marked with merriment rather than piety.
The Rev. Increase Mather, a prominent figure in early Massachusetts, wrote in 1687 of what he saw as the ills of Christmas.
“The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that Festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ,” Mather observed. “How few are there comparatively that spend those Holidays (as they are called) after an Holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth; Will Christ the holy Son of God be pleased with such Services?”
Given the Puritan attitude toward the December 25 holiday, it’s no surprise that celebrating it was forbidden in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In fact, from 1659-1681 anyone found to be celebrating Christmas there was fined five shillings (about $40 today). Anyone who skipped work on Christmas risked being shunned.
Val Lauder, a former journalism professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and author of The Back Page: The Personal Face of History, wrote in a piece for CNN: “The Puritans were so vigilant, watchful for the slightest sign of ‘keeping Christmas,’ because they saw any breach as the first step toward falling back under the domination of the Church of England from which they’d fled. And anyone who ‘kept Christmas’ became an outcast, literally or figuratively.”
Such was the influence of the Puritans over New England that Christmas was just another day in that region long after Puritan control of Massachusetts had ended. In a Dec. 25, 1856, journal entry, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of The Song of Hiawatha and many other works, described the lingering attitudes of Bostonians when it came to celebrating Christmas.
“Not a very merry Christmas,” Longfellow penned. “We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday, though every year makes it more so.”
The change was gradual. Lauder noted that on Christmas Day in the 19th century, some Boston factories opened earlier than usual – 5 a.m. – to ensure that anyone who wanted to attend church services would have to choose between his religion and his livelihood. Those who chose church were usually fired if they came late to work, Lauder said. As for the Boston churches, even into the 1930s some shuttered on December 25.
Boston notwithstanding, American attitudes toward observing Christmas changed considerably during the 19th century. Southern states were the first to formally recognize the holiday. According to Penne L. Restad, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin, Virginia planters were among the earliest Americans to actually celebrate Christmas, using the day as a chance to “feast, dance, gamble, hunt and visit, perpetuating what they believed to be the old Christmas customs in English manors.”
Indeed, Virginian Thomas Jefferson documented his Christmas activities several times throughout his life. On Dec. 25, 1762, Jefferson wrote: Christmas was a “day of greatest mirth and jollity.” In 1779, Jefferson noted in his accounting book that he spent 48 shillings on Christmas presents. And on Dec. 25, 1809, Jefferson wrote about some of his favorite holiday foods.
“I will take the liberty of sending for some barrels of apples, and if a basket of them can now be sent by the bearer they will be acceptable as accommodated to the season of mince pies,” he noted.
Beginning in the 1830s, Southern states started marking Dec. 25 as an official holiday. Alabama was the first to do so, in 1836. Louisiana and Arkansas followed in 1838. Then in 1845, Connecticut became the first Northern state to recognize the holiday.
Thanks to a variety of factors – fallout from the Civil War, immigration from countries where Christmas was popular and even the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – Christmas became increasingly popular throughout the rest of the country over the coming decades.
Still, the federal government was slow to warm to the holiday. Researchers discovered that Congress was officially in session on Christmas every year but three between 1789 and 1857, though the U.S. House of Representatives only met once during that period on Christmas Day (1797), as did the Senate (1802). Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870, and the Congressional Research Service reported that the request for acknowledgement of this holiday came not from clergy but from Washington, D.C., “bankers and business men.”
Notwithstanding some holdouts in New England, federal recognition of Christmas ensured that it would be widely observed throughout America by the beginning of the 20th century. Indeed, Restad said scholars estimate that by 1900, 20 percent of Americans had a Christmas tree in their homes. Just a few decades after Christmas become an official part of American life, people like Henry Ford began to complain that someone was ruining the holiday.
Ford blamed the Jews in the 1920s. In the 1950s, communism was the culprit.
“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,” the radical anti-communist John Birch Society decried in a 1959 pamphlet called “There Goes Christmas?!” The group also made the rather vague claim that United Nations “fanatics” were out to “poison the 1959 Christmas season with their high-pressure propaganda.”
By the 1970s, the “war on Christmas” was being recognized by some in the mainstream. In a January 1978 radio address, Ronald Reagan bemoaned U.S. Supreme Court decisions that, in his view, kicked religion out of public schools.
“Christmas can be celebrated in the school room with pine trees, tinsel and reindeers, but there must be no mention of the man whose birthday is being celebrated,” the future president remarked, according to Reagan, In His Own Hand. “One wonders how a teacher would answer if a student asked why it was called Christmas.”
In the 1990s, the “war on Christmas” reached a wider audience thanks to the rise of the World Wide Web. Peter Brimelow, a radical American anti-immigration activist who was ironically born in England, launched a xenophobic organization called the Center for American Unity and a website, VDARE.com, in 1999.
Brimelow had some name recognition thanks to stints at Forbes magazine and the National Review, as well as his best-selling book Alien Nation.
In the days before O’Reilly and Fox News latched onto the “war,” Brimelow led the fight against “secular progressives” who were allegedly out to destroy Christmas. Time magazine noted that Brimelow’s website exposed “offenders” in the “war on Christmas” from its beginning. The first culprit, in 1999, was the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because it dared host a party called “A Celebration of Holiday Traditions.” In 2000, Amazon.com earned Brimelow’s ire for wishing its customers “Happy Holidays!” (In 2003, VDare, which was named for the first white child born in the New World, Virginia Dare, was labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its views.)
Today, the chief perpetrator of the “war” myth remains Fox News – and it seems the annual seasonal scuffle came well before December this year. During a segment on the October 8 edition of “Fox & Friends,” Heather Nauert griped about an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawsuit over a live nativity scene in an Indiana public school’s annual Christmas show.
“Well, it’s only October, but the war on Christmas is already in full swing,” Nauert carped. The ACLU asserted that the scene is coercive, a fact apparently lost on Nauert.
In 2014, the flap started even earlier. In August of that year, Elizabeth Hasselbeck whined on “Fox & Friends” about the controversy surrounding a nativity scene on government property in Belen, N.M.
“[T]he war on Christmas typically comes in the winter, near December, but this is coming a little bit early [because] this isn’t a seasonal issue – this nativity that comes up for Christmas. This has been part of… history there,” she said of the summer start to the winter war.
Even though the claims made on Fox are flimsy, the Religious Right believes the “war on Christmas” is real, and the network uses this phony fight as an excuse to attack public schools.
Fox gets a lot of help from Religious Right legal groups. In 2005, Liberty Counsel (LC), the group that is defending Rowan, County, Ky., Clerk Kim Davis, launched an all-out attack on the Dodgeville, Wisc., School District because Ridgeway Elementary School officials had allegedly secularized the lyrics to many religious songs, such as “Silent Night,” in school holiday programs.
LC head Mat Staver, the Rev. Jerry Falwell and other Religious Right figures appeared numerous times on Fox News programs that year to spread far-fetched claims of an alleged attack on Christianity in America. In a Dec. 7 press release, Liberty Counsel accused Ridgeway Elementary of secularizing its holiday celebrations and said it had sent officials a letter demanding that the school fix its holiday programs or be prepared for potential litigation.
Liberty Counsel hadn’t told the whole story: The school was performing a play called “The Little Christmas Tree’s Gift,” which is about homelessness. The play uses the melodies of several familiar Christmas songs but with different lyrics to fit the theme. An attorney for the school district later asked LC for a formal apology as well as $23,899.48 in compensation for costs the district incurred in refuting the lies about their school. Of course, they didn’t get a dime.
Liberty Counsel is not alone in declaring war over Christmas. In 2006, the Arizona-based Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom boasted that it had more than 900 attorneys standing by to defend Christmas and, in a press statement, said it had mailed letters to more than 11,000 public schools nationwide, purporting to explain the law relating to Christmas celebrations in the schools.
“Of course it’s ridiculous that Americans have to think twice about whether it’s okay to say Merry Christmas,” ADF Senior Counsel Joe Infranco said in the statement. “It’s time to repair the damage organizations like the ACLU have done to America’s favorite holiday. It’s a sad day in this country when you have to retain an attorney to wish someone a Merry Christmas. And an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose censoring Christmas.”
Infranco did not specify where people had been ordered to stop saying “Merry Christmas,” and research by Americans United indicated that the ADF’s army of attorneys may have had little to do that year. A search of the comprehensive news database Nexis for ADF-sponsored Christmas lawsuits in 2006 returned no results. A search of the ADF’s site brought up two cases dealing with religious displays, one of which was later settled out of court.
Assailing public schools over their handling of Christmas has become a December tradition for the Religious Right and its allies in the right-wing media. In 2005, John Gibson, a former host at Fox News who functioned as a kind of poor man’s O’Reilly, flogged his book The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. The tome was loaded with horror stories of alleged attacks on Christmas by public schools and other arms of government.
On Dec. 21, 2005, AU’s Rob Boston appeared on Gibson’s show, “The Big Story,” to discuss the war on Christmas. Things got heated after Boston challenged the accuracy of some of Gibson’s claims. An angry Gibson cut off Boston’s microphone.
That same year, Americans United issued a report examining several Religious Right claims about alleged attacks on Christmas in the public schools. The group found that in every case, the claims were either groundless, or important information had been omitted. For example, a public school in Texas was accused of ordering students not to wear red and green clothes during the month of December. When AU staffers called the school, officials said there was no such policy in place, but the school was getting so many calls on the matter it had to post a statement on its website debunking it.
Regardless of where you stand on the veracity of the “war,” the truth is that promoting it has become an industry in and of itself. AFA, for example, brought in more than half a million dollars selling buttons and magnets reading “Merry Christmas: It’s Worth Saying” in 2006. That same year, Liberty Counsel took in more than $300,000 hawking a “Help Save Christmas Action Pack,” and ADF sold a similar kit for $29 each.
Right-wing filmmakers have even taken to making cheap movies featuring no-name actors about the imaginary war. In 2011’s “Christmas with a Capital C,” a cranky attorney returns to his hometown in Alaska and files a lawsuit against a nativity scene on government property. He almost gets away with it until God-fearing residents stand up to him.
2013 saw the release of “Beyond the Farthest Star,” focusing on an evangelical pastor who is outraged after a Democratic U.S. senator sets fire to his nativity scene.
Former child star Kirk Cameron appeared in a 2014 bomb titled “Saving Christmas,” in which he played a man striving to fend off the secularization of the holiday by telling his brother-in-law all about the biblical basis for the Christmas story. Critics have called it one of the worst films ever made, and the film aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes rates it a zero.
Religious Right activists have also released a spate of pro-Christmas books. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin got in on the act in 2013 with Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. In the tome, which is widely acknowledged as ghost-written, Palin claimed Jefferson as a theological ally.
“He would recognize that, for the most part, these are angry atheists armed with an attorney,” Palin claimed. “They are not the majority of Americans.”
While the “war” will likely never go away entirely because the Religious Right simply has too much invested in its “persecution” complex, the narrative may be beginning to crumble. In 2012 during a “Fox & Friends” segment, the Rev. Jonathan Morris, a Roman Catholic priest who is a regular on the network, actually criticized Fox for making too much of the issue.
“If our Christmas is going to be all about getting upset at people trying to take away Christmas, isn’t that silly too?” Morris asked.
He added later: “You guys look so angry about this ‘War on Christmas.’ I can tell.”
Host Gretchen Carlson was beside herself.
“We’re not nuts, are we? There is a war on Christmas!” she exclaimed.
No, Gretchen, there isn’t a “war on Christmas.” There never was.