War on Christmas?

Christmas in the post-War United States

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States has numerous Christmas traditions, ranging from elaborate decorations to re-gifting lame gifts like fruitcakes. While these are broad traditions, embraced by millions of Americans, there are also narrower traditions. One such tradition is the Fox & friends holiday ritual of claiming that there is a war on Christmas.

Gretchen Carlson and State Representative Doreen Carlson lit the ritual hyperbole log (not to be confused with the Yule log) near the end of November 2012. After discussing what she took as the latest evidence in the existence of the war, Carlson closed with “a lot of people, for whatever reason, will look at this interview today and say, Gretchen Carlson and Doreen Costa are nuts. They’re so nuts because they think there’s this made up war on Christmas. We’re not nuts, are we? There is a war on Christmas!”

While it is very tempting to dismiss Carlson and her fellows on the grounds of some sort of insanity, I will not do this. I do not think that she is insane. However, I do think that the war on Christmas is made up, in the same way that Santa is made up—only with a rather less pleasant intention behind the fiction.

While the term “war” gets thrown around so excessively by Americans (we have wars on everything, including actual wars on actual people) that is has become worn and shoddy, I will endeavor to present a rough account of what would be required for there to be a war on Christmas.

Roughly put, a war would seem to indicate a conflict with breadth and intensity. In terms of breadth, a true war typically would require a reasonable broad front, either literally or metaphorically. After all, a few sporadic episodes of violence that take place far from each other would hardly count as a war.  In the case of the alleged war on Christmas, there would need to be battles occurring across adequately broad areas of the country as opposed to extremely limited numbers of isolated incidents. Not surprisingly fine folks at Fox traditionally make use of the hasty generalization (a fallacy in which a person draws a general conclusion about a population based on a sample that is not adequate in size) to create the impression that the few examples of what they claim are incidents in the war are actually general occurrences. Naturally, one should not take my word for this. If it really matters, a person can create a war map and plot out the locations of the alleged incidents to determine if they constitute a large enough number to count as a war. This can be done my imaging each incident as a fight proportional to the incident.

In terms of intensity, a true war (as opposed to a cold or false war) would seem to require a level of conflict that would intuitively match what is expected in war. If, for example, soldiers on opposing sides exchange taunts and occasionally throw rocks at each other, that would hardly seem to be a war. In the case of an actual war on Christmas, what would be needed would be attacks on Christmas of sufficient intensity to be considered warlike aggression against the holiday.

In general, Fox tends to point to incidents of the “intensity” discussed by Carlson and Costa. In Rhode Island, where Costa is a representative, the governor held a holiday tree lighting, rather than a Christmas tree lighting. Fox also points to cases in which Nativity scenes are not allowed to be displayed on state property, such as in front of or in government buildings. Incidents in which people say “happy holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas” are also taken as evidence of the war. On the face of it, these incidents do not seem intense enough to count as warfare.

There is also the fact that is blindingly obvious that Christmas itself is not under attack (other than the usual commercialism that corrupts the very heart of the holiday). After all, Christmas is not only completely legal, the overwhelming majority of Americans celebrate it and almost all Americans participate in some way (my atheist and non-Christian friends have never turned down a Christmas gift nor a Christmas dinner). Christmas trees, Christmas cards, Christmas goose, Christmas lights, Christmas carols, Christmas services and so on are also completely legal and unhindered. It would take a strange epistemology indeed to believe that there is a war on this beloved and almost universally practiced (in America) holiday.

But, one might say, what about the fact that state officials, like the governor of Rhode Island, have “holiday tree” lightings. What about public schools having “winter breaks” rather than “Christmas breaks”? What about Nativity scenes not being set up in federal court houses? Are these not evidence of a most vile war on Christmas?

The obvious answer is “not at all.” One should be careful to note that what is occurring is that the state is simply not giving special treatment to the holiday of a specific faith (although Christmas seems to have extended way beyond Christianity) with the main focus being on the religious trappings. So, for example, trees, snowmen, Santa Claus and so on seem to be fine on state grounds. Baby Jesus, not so much. However, this is no more a war on Christmas than changing “chairman” to “chairperson” is a war on men. It just means that one specific faith is not getting special treatment denied to other faiths. Not always getting what one wants and not having one’s faith enshrined by the state is hardly the same thing as a war on Christmas.

What would an actual war on Christmas look like in America? That is easy enough to answer. From 1659-1681 the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston. This was not the work of anti-Christians, but due to the Puritan opposition to Christmas on religious grounds. While New England is now famous as a Christmas place, the celebration of the holiday did not come into vogue until around the mid-19th century, at least around Boston. So, Fox, until people start banning Christmas across regions of the country again (or worse), talk of the war on Christmas is just annoying and divisive hyperbole. Worse, it gets people who have weak critical thinking skills upset, worried and angry and that is not the sort of holiday spirit that is right for the season. So, for the sake of the Christmas spirit, stop engaging in this foolishness.

My books make excellent gifts, especially for the fine folks at Fox.

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  1. Mike, your friendly and illuminating comments are certainly in the “Christmas spirit,” as best understood. It is generous of you not to raise or explore the obvious question: Why is it that influential media organizations invest considerable energy and money in promoting what you correctly describe as “annoying and divisive hyperbole”? What is the pay-off to divisiveness? You and I certainly know the answer to this question, but unfortunately, many people who have limited skills in critical thinking and political analysis do not know the answer, do not understand what “Fox and friends” are doing to them. This is the “dark side” of this issue, which you so genially neglect.

  2. Re>-Robert M Wallace December 3

    “What is the pay-off to divisiveness? You and I certainly know the answer to this question, but unfortunately, many people who have limited skills in critical thinking and political analysis”

    As I appear to be a person of limited skills in critical thinking and Political analysis. Would you be kind enough to tell me, briefly, and in simple language, exactly what this is all about.

  3. The pay-off to divisiveness is that the Republican party and its friends in the media are able to set substantial parts of the American working or middle class against other parts, by persuading them that their sacred symbols are “under attack” by those other parts. It’s the whole strategy of the “culture wars” over the last several decades: divide and conquer.

  4. While it is tempting to see the narrative of the war on Christmas as a time filler, it does have an unfortunate tendency to convince certain people that Christianity is under attack and that that Christians are a persecuted majority in a land in which they are a powerful majority.

    This belief can be exploited to keep the audience watching Fox for more news of the war (thus generating advertising dollars) and also used for political purposes.

    Some people take this made-up war incredibly seriously and buy into the victim narrative.

  5. Re Robert M Wallace Dec 3rd.
    Thanks for your reply. I did not know about that, here in UK. I now understand the reference to divisiveness, and culture wars in the context of this matter, which has been set for our consideration.

  6. This nonsense rears its head every year in the British tabloids, and every year it is thoroughly debunked.

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