Book Excerpt: The Myths that Stole Christmas

We all secretly know that Christmas isn’t wholly good cheer, but David Kyle Johnson is brave enough to say it. The Myths that Stole Christmas debunks the biggest misconceptions about America’s most popular holiday and dares readers to take it back and make the season their own! Now available (including extensive footnotes and references) from Humanist Press in ebook and print formats. Order here.

MYTH 2: There Is a War on Christmas

mythschristmasEvery year, right around December 1, we’re repeatedly told “there is a war on Christmas.” If there is, however, it’s the most unsuccessful war in history. A full 96 percent of Americans annually celebrate Christmas, and that number shows no signs of moving south. Christmas is even becoming popular in non-Christian and non-religious countries like Vietnam, China, and Japan. The health of our economy is defined by Christmas spending and the Christmas shopping season gets longer every year—we usually see our first Christmas ad in mid-October, and hear our first Christmas music in stores on November 1. And in 2012, Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving) became Black Thursday. As Jon Stewart put it, “Christmas is so big now, it’s eating other holidays. Watch your ass, Halloween! You’re next.” Nevertheless, every year, we are led to believe that Christmas is under attack—that it’s on the verge of extinction:

The secular progressive liberal atheists hate Christmas and every year they wage a war against it. They make us say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” They unlawfully force the removal of court house nativities. They want to turn all Christmas trees into “holiday trees.” They ban the colors red and green in schools. They are determined to eliminate Christmas and make it illegal for you to “joyfully and openly celebrate.” We must stop them. If we don’t, no one will be able to celebrate Christmas anymore. Keep “Christ” in “Christmas.” After all, Jesus is the reason for the season.

Sarah Palin assures us that this war is “not just some figment of the religious right’s imagination,” but it is exactly that. The list of complaints regarding how “liberals” are waging a war on Christmas seems almost endless (and new examples pop up every year), but almost every one of those complaints is either exaggerated (intentionally sensationalized) or just outright false. And while it is true that there are objections to government-funded and endorsed Christmas decorations and celebrations that are overtly religious, such objections constitute a war on Christmas only if the holiday is essentially and only about Jesus—which, as we saw last chapter, it is not. Worse still, the way people have reacted to these complaints is downright dangerous. They threaten everything from your ability to celebrate the holiday as you see fit, to the very foundations of our constitutional democracy.

There Is No War on Christmas

The specific idea that there is a “liberal War on Christmas” did not arise organically. It was invented relatively recently. The earliest claims seem to trace back to 1999, when

Peter Brimelow, who is too far right even for National Review, founded (which was later classified as a hate group) and started complaining about liberal phrases like “Happy Holidays” and government Christmas parties being called “A Celebration of Holiday Traditions.”

But the claim that there is a war on Christmas—that it is under attack by some “other group” that conservative Christians don’t like—is nothing new. For example in the 1920s, Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motors, claimed that the Jews were attacking Christmas in his anti-Semitic tract, “The International Jew.” In 1959 it was the communists. The John Birch Society claimed that “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.” (I wonder if this was the first use of that phrase.) Basically, labeling a group you don’t like as “anti-Christmas” is an extremely popular and effective way to vilify that group and so it’s a common tactic.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Republican politics. Rick Perry cited the War on Christmas when talking about “Obama’s war on religion” in a 2010 campaign ad. In fact the War on Christmas was used by most of the Republican candidates in some form, including Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, during the 2012 Republican campaign. But nothing says it better than the lawn sign that a friend of mine, Rev. Lance Schmitz, saw on a suburban lawn in 2011: “Save Christmas, Vote Republican.”

Although it was invented by Brimelow, the idea that there is a liberal war on Christmas was most notably popularized by Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson in 2005. That year, O’Reilly complained on his show about Walmart greeters saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and John Gibson published The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse than You Thought. Today, almost every claim about there being such a war ultimately finds its origin on Fox News. These claims include:

Schools in Plano, Texas; Saginaw Township, Michigan; and Orlando, Florida, banned the colors red and green during Christmastime.

Ridgeway Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisconsin changed the lyrics to “Silent Night,” performed in a school play to eliminate all references to religion.

In 2011 Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee (D-RI) called the Capitol’s Christmas tree a “holiday tree.”

Denver banned religious floats in its holiday parade.

Gap doesn’t ever use the word Christmas in their ads.

Walmart, Macy’s, and other stores require all their employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” and never put “Merry Christmas” in their advertisements.

The problem is every one of these claims is either grotesquely exaggerated or just outright false.

No school has ever banned the colors red and green, and the mentioned schools produced their records to prove it. A similar story popped up in 2013 about a school in Frisco (conflicting reports said it was Waco), but the story was debunked almost as soon as it was reported.

Ridgeway Elementary didn’t change the lyrics to “Silent Night” to eliminate all reference to religion. In reality, a church choir director changed all the lyrics in the play he helped to write to make them easier for kids to learn.

It’s true that Governor Lincoln Chafee (D-RI) didn’t call the statehouse tree a “Christmas tree” in 2011. However, he did so in an effort to be more inclusive of Rhode Islanders who celebrate the holiday but are not Christian. “If it’s in my house it’s a Christmas tree, but when I’m representing all of Rhode Island I have to be respectful of everyone.” It was not part of an effort to make the holiday illegal, to try “to put our religion down,” or to force everyone to strip religious aspects from their holiday celebrations. In addition, the previous governor of Rhode Island, a Republican, also called it a holiday tree during the previous eight years, but Fox News never made a peep and no one protested.

Although the City of Denver did reject a religious parade float, they also rejected many other non-religious floats. It’s a small parade and not everyone gets in. The next year, religious floats were allowed.

Gap indeed does use the word Christmas in its ads and even sells merchandise with “Christmas” on it.

While it is true that you might hear “Happy Holidays” from employees at Walmart, it’s false that it is required.

In 2005, Walmart “encouraged” their employees to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” in an attempt, they said, to include all their customers, whether they be shopping for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or New Year’s. Some Macy’s stores did replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” in some of their ads, but the decision to do so was left up to individual store owners—it was not forced.

In 2013, Bill O’Reilly assured us that the War on Christmas was not only real but that conservatives had already won. Why? Because after conservatives complained, things got fixed—employees were no longer “forbidden” from saying Merry Christmas, schools were allowed to “have a Christmas wreath or a Christmas candle or a menorah or whatever,” and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee started calling the state tree a “Christmas tree” again. But most of the things conservatives complained about weren’t happening in the first place. Those that were didn’t constitute a war on Christmas and only changed because they became a problem as a result of the conservative complaints. O’Reilly created his own problem by complaining, and then when people gave into his complaints, he claimed he had solved a problem.

O’Reilly claiming that he won the War on Christmas is a bit like so-called “anti-vaxxers” claiming that they cured autism by having thimerosal removed from vaccines. Although it had already been proven that thimerosal is safe and does not cause autism, anti-vaxxers thought it did. When they complained so loudly that people stopped vaccinating their children (some of whom subsequently died from preventable diseases), thimerosal was removed from vaccines just to appease them. Like O’Reilly, they claimed victory: “See, thimerosal was a problem and we solved it.” But of course, they didn’t solve a problem. They just made a big enough stink to become a problem themselves and, unfortunately, autism continues to rise.

Something that exposes the hypocrisy of O’Reilly’s complaints: the same year that O’Reilly was complaining about the phrase “Happy Holidays” on his show, he himself was selling “holiday ornaments” to hang on your “holiday tree” through his website. Also in 2005, the Bush White House wished everyone a “Happy Holiday Season” in their “holiday card.” Truth be told, the phrase “Happy Holidays” predates Fox News’s “War on Christmas” by far more than 100 years. It seems to have originally just been shorthand for “Happy Thanksgiving, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year,” and today would include Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. When you think about it, if you are greeting someone but don’t know if and which holidays they celebrate, or if you are proclaiming a message that will be seen by multiple people that may celebrate different holidays over a long period of time, it’s a “catch all” phrase that makes perfect sense to use. In no way is using it “anti-Christian” or “anti-Christmas.”

At the same time, it seems that the “liberal worry” about the use of the word “Christmas”—that it is offensive to the ears of non-Christians—is overblown. This seems to be an instance where political correctness has gone too far. O’Reilly thinks that non-Christians would have to be crazy to be offended by a two-word phrase like “Merry Christmas,” adding to the irony that he is so offended by the use of the two-word phrase “Happy Holidays.” I think he is right, but for a different reason.

Although the effort to be more inclusive by using the phrase “Happy Holidays” is laudable, the word “Christmas” is no more indicative of Christ and Christianity than the word “Sunday” is indicative of the sun and sun worship. To think “Christmas” is a Christian word commits the etymological fallacy—to think that the present meaning of a word is derived from its origins or even its spelling. Both words do have a religious origin (see Chapter 1), but words find their meaning in their connotation and use. And the word “Christmas” has been almost completely detached from its original Christian origin. Recall that December celebrations were originally pagan celebrations that the church tried and failed to Christianize. The church started calling the holiday “Christmas” in the eleventh century, but the celebrations stayed secular and remain so to this day. Consequently, the word “Christmas” conjures mainly non-Christian images, such as Santa, decorated pine trees, gifts, and feasting.

What astounds me, however, is that people don’t seem to realize how closed-minded and intolerant they look when they campaign against neutral holiday slogans like “Happy Holidays.” Take a scene in the made-for-Christians Christmas movie, Christmas with a Capital C. A local store owner, putting up a “Season’s Greetings” banner, defends his decision by saying, “It works for everybody.” The protagonist Dan retorts, “It doesn’t work for me.” The viewer is forced to ask, “So if it doesn’t work for you, it just shouldn’t be done, everyone else be damned?” I understand that he thinks he is defending his sacred holiday from being attacked, but it looks like pure intolerance. “I know that Walmart is already wall-to-wall Christmas merchandise, decorations, sales and music, but if the next Buddhist who walks through that door doesn’t have the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ thrown in their face too, I’m not shopping here anymore!”

No one is telling you that you can’t say “Merry Christmas”; no one is dictating how you should celebrate the holiday in your private life. Why is the fact that some people or businesses try to avoid saying “Merry Christmas” to people who don’t celebrate Christmas such a big deal? I wouldn’t wish someone a happy Father’s Day unless I knew they were a father. Why would I wish someone a merry Christmas unless I knew they celebrated Christmas?

In short, saying “Merry Christmas” really shouldn’t be a big deal—but neither should saying neutral phrases like “Happy Holiday,” especially if there are good intentions behind it.

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