Meaning of the War Over Christmas

From the Archive: It’s Christmastime again, so just as families pull their tree ornaments and lawn decorations out of storage, Fox News and other right-wing media outlets dust off their annual outrage over the so-called “war on Christmas,” which is just as phony now as it was when Robert Parry addressed the topic in 2005.

By Robert Parry (Originally published Dec. 11, 2005)

You have to hand it to political operatives who can turn the Christmas celebration of Jesus’s birth into a nasty wedge issue, transforming a traditional message of love, peace and tolerance into one of anger, conflict and resentment.

The success of the American Right in extracting a “war on Christmas” out of a few well-meaning gestures to non-Christians, such as using the greeting “Happy Holidays,” is a testament to the investment conservatives have made in media over three decades.

Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City

With their vertically integrated media apparatus – from newspapers and magazines, to TV and radio, to books and the Internet – the Right now can take a few scattered anecdotes on almost any topic and heat them up into a hot-button issue.

This “perception management” capability is now so powerful that even the most absurd notions can be made convincing to millions of Americans, such as the idea that despite the ubiquitous Christmas displays throughout the United States – from before Thanksgiving to after Dec. 25 – Christmas is under assault.

While an outsider arriving in the United States might see a nation celebrating Christmas with an unrivaled intensity and extravagance, the Right’s media has created another world for its followers – where Christians are persecuted for celebrating their faith, where they are repressed by cruel non-Christians and evil secularists.

This perceived persecution exists even as America’s downtowns and shopping malls are bedecked with the red-and-green Christmas colors and Christmas symbols are everywhere, even in cities like New York with large populations of Jews and Muslims.

Christmas Carols

Somehow, listeners to Fox News and right-wing talk radio are convinced that Christmas is threatened despite the fact that Christmas carols are pumped into nearly all public places, including elevators and grocery stores where both Christians and non-Christians must go. Some radio stations, like the one played in the Arlington, Virginia, coffee shop where I often go to write, have been playing Christmas carols since before Thanksgiving.

When I bought stamps the other day (in 2005) from a U.S. Postal Service vending machine, I had expected to get the usual “American flag” stamps, but instead ended up with “Santa Claus” stamps. The USPS Web site also sold a “Dear Santa” CD, which includes Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and Vonzell Solomon’s “O Come All Ye Faithful,” with a cross-marketing deal for a Fox “Dear Santa” special.

Still, one of the complaints heard from conservative Christians was that the post office didn’t offer a new “Madonna and Child” stamp (though you could still get the version produced in 2004).

Another major beef from conservative Christians is that the federal courts have restricted displays of the baby Jesus in the manger on government property and that public schools have replaced “Christmas concerts” with “winter concerts” and the “Christmas vacation” with a “winter vacation.”

Nevertheless, schools are closed for about two weeks to accommodate Americans wishing to celebrate Christmas. Despite the U.S. principle of separation of church and state, Christmas remains an official federal holiday, an exception to the rule that is afforded no other religious observance. Jews, for instance, don’t expect Christians to honor Yom Kippur by taking the day off, nor do Muslims expect the government to show undue deference to Ramadan.

‘Liberal Plot’

Our hypothetical outsider might see the American reality as one in which all citizens, regardless of their religious beliefs, are expected to join in the celebration of Christmas. But that is not the impression one would get from watching Fox News, reading conservative blogs or listening to right-wing talk radio.

Within the Right’s media world, conservative Americans learn how the “liberals” and the American Civil Liberties Union are “anti-Christian” and out to deny American Christians their right to observe Christmas as they see fit.

Fox News anchor John Gibson made this case in his book, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. The “war on Christmas” theme became a centerpiece of Bill O’Reilly’s rants on Fox, a message that then resonated through the Right’s echo chamber.

In 2005, led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, some conservative Christians boycotted stores that offered their customers the non-sectarian greeting of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” In some cases, “Merry Christmas” is now spit out as fighting words, much as conservatives emphasize the words “under God” during the Pledge of Allegiance.

Falwell vowed to sue “everybody who tries to inhibit the liberties of our children and our families from worshipping and honoring the Lord, as we in America are constitutionally allowed to do.”

But there is a larger message in this trumped-up “war on Christmas.” It is how the Right’s powerful news media can shape American perceptions to such a degree that a dominant group like American Christians can be made to see themselves as powerless victims, even over trivial grievances like saying “Happy Holidays.” [For details on the Right’s media power, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege or Lost History.]

‘Victims’

While conservative commentators often accuse African-Americans and other minorities of wallowing in their “victimhood,” the Right’s media has learned the political power that comes from letting white men, for instance, take on the mantle of “victim.”

In the 1990s, a powerful conservative theme was the complaint against “political correctness,” which often came down to universities and other institutions applying clumsy restrictions against young white men shouting the n-word at African-Americans or using other offensive language.

Though American white men collectively are arguably the most privileged group on earth, the “political correctness” theme allowed them to bathe in the self-pity of their “victimhood.” It allowed them to get righteous and angry against their supposed persecutors.

There is, of course, a danger whenever a powerful group begins to view itself as the victim, because their real power allows these ersatz oppressed to inflict far greater harm on their enemies than could a group without power.

Historically, the world has seen this phenomenon many times, for instance, when Christians in Europe persuaded themselves that they were at the mercy of cunning Jews. Many of the continent’s anti-Jewish pogroms were conducted by Christians convinced that they were simply defending their way of life, that they were the real victims.

Now, the United States is witnessing a similar exploitation of Christian fears and the fanning of Christian anger. The “war on Christmas” theme is one manifestation of this growing chip on the shoulder.

The Right has learned well how it can deploy its powerful media to make even the most ludicrous notion seem real – both frightening and infuriating – to millions of Americans.

[For more on related topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History, Secrecy & Privilege and Neck Deep, now available in a three-book set for the discount price of only $29. For details, click here.]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.

 

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4 comments on “Meaning of the War Over Christmas

  1. I seem to be commenting on everything so I will bow out after this one. When I was an agnostic, it did not bother me when anyone wished me a Merry Christmas. No Jew wished me Happy Hannukah, but that would not have bothered me either. The MC greeting was one of good will, no offense intended. But things have changed. Now the Christian Right (CR) pushes legislation to IMPOSE their brand of morality on a population that does not share our premises. The CR are backers of all things military. Most of the CR wants to end or severely cut back the social safety net. We have become scary to many outsiders. What we are misreading as persecution is actually “blowback” from a resistant population. If the CR wants to know what real persecution is, look at Christians in the middle east, Coptic Christians in Egypt, or China, etc. That is persecution.
    The best reflection of Christ by a church was the apostolic church through about 170 AD, slightly less until Constantine when the church went off the rails. Up to then, we had no place in the public square, no vote, no participation in the military, did not seek or hold public office, had no school prayer, no in God we trust on drachmas—none of the trappings of modern day Christianity, but the early church FLOURISHED. The twelve, the 120, grew to 4-6 million by the time of Constantine by preaching the resurrection. Much of our flourishing was BECAUSE we were apolitical, and our corporate life was attractive. We ministered to outsiders; we did not judge them (critics had much to say about Christianity, but one critique is not found, hypocrites). When the plague hit North Africa around 250 AD, Christians ministered to the sick when family and doctors fled. Yes, and we suffered real persecution at the hands of the Jews and later the Romans. There is a huge difference between real persecution and the blowback we bring on ourselves.

  2. Pingback: It’s that time of year again-time to incite divisiveness and add a little bit of victomhood with it « Miscellany101′s Weblog

  3. Karen Romero on said:

    This article could have been written today, instead of 2005. I don’t know…are people just slow learners or do they even want to learn? What do they think they are here on earth to do? You would think that people would be more awake to this war on Christmas mind programming. I am thankful you reprinted this article Bob. Another good article!

    You know what I really get tired of? The bashing of the ACLU. The ACLU is often blamed for being against Christmas. Huh? Is it the ACLU that stole the money from our country or is it the banking cabal, many of whom are not even human? The ACLU doesn’t bash Christmas. The dark side bashes Christmas (all the while pretending to care, when they really don’t). Time for the Lucifer worshipping dark side to go to HELL! And, they can take all their propaganda with them! That would be a great Christmas present to all of humanity!

    I also get tired of hearing that what is wrong is there is no more prayer in the schools. The usual arrogance of the fundamentalist Christian right. No regard for anyone else’s religion. You know the ACLU fought for the right of a young New Jersey kid to be able to sing the beautiful song Awesome God. The ACLU won and the kid got to sing that song. Do you hear that in the mainstream news? NO! Only that the ACLU won’t allow prayers in the schools and that the ACLU bashes Christmas! That is the propaganda that is spread by the dark sided Lucifer worshippers that pretend they love Jesus!

    I am thankful the ACLU will stop prayers being prayed in the schools. You know why? Because they will also stop prayers to Satan being prayed in the schools. So perhaps people need to think on that for a few minutes.

    As for the greeting, Merry Christmas…I too used to worry about saying that. I didn’t want to offend any non Christian. Then one day I figured out my intent isn’t to offend someone by saying that, so now I say it when I want to say that greeting.

    That said, I would like to say to the staff of Consortium News and to each of the writers that submit articles at Consortium News and to the ACLU, I hope and pray each of you have a very Merry Christmas.

    Truly,
    Karen Romero