Meaning of the War Over Christmas

From the Archive: In the month-long (or even longer) “Christmas season,” there is much faux outrage from Fox News and the Right about a “war on Christmas,” even as public places are adorned with Christmas decorations and Christmas music fills the air, as Robert Parry noted 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.

The annual Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. (Photo credit:

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 (in 2005 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.]


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.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and

5 comments for “Meaning of the War Over Christmas

  1. E.A. Blair
    December 8, 2012 at 23:16

    “I had expected to get the usual ‘American flag’ stamps…”

    “American Flag” stamps are actually illegal under the provisions of Title 4 of the United States Code, Chapter 1, Section 8(i):

    “The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. It should not be embroidered on such articles as cushions or handkerchiefs and the like, printed or otherwise impressed on paper napkins or boxes or anything that is designed for temporary use and discard. Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown.”

    There are few things that are more designed “…for temporary use and discard…” than a postage stamp. Unfortunately, Title 4 Chapter 1 carries no penalties, making it possible for fake patriots to strut their stuff every so often by proposing “anti-desecration” laws that are already part of law. Even more unfortunately, most of those same fake patriots haven’t the slightest idea what the legal provisions are for proper display of the flag.

    Moving on to Christmas, it also doesn’t surprise me that most Christians attach more significance than is necesssary to the birth of Christ while ignoring what is suppoed to be the central mystery and miracle of Christian mythology, namely the death and resurrection which is supposed to have redeemed humanity. Through most of Christian history, Christmas has been the merest blip on ecclesiastical calendars.

  2. bobzz
    December 6, 2012 at 02:37

    Hmm…the apostolic/early church (prior to Constantine): sporadically persecuted, no place in the public square, no vote, no merry christmas, no “in God we trust” on money, no nativity scenes, no school prayer, no “one nation under God” in a pledge, no military service, no nationalism, no holding public office, no 2.5 ton statue of the ten commandments in the Forum, no Christmas trees, no rock bands for worship, no court or legislature to impose our morality on a reluctant populace. None of this and the church flourished, growing from the original 120 to 4-6 million prior to Constantine. After Constantine, we jumped tracks early. In the fourth century, Julian the Apostate criticized the church for leaving its primitive purity. Atheists, liberals, university professors, secularists, etc., are not the problem. The great philosopher, Pogo, put it well, “We have seen the enemy, and the enemy is us.”

  3. John Puma
    December 6, 2012 at 02:15

    Happy Holidays, Bill-O !!!

  4. Brian F. Wood
    December 5, 2012 at 08:50

    War on Xmas? Au contraire!!! People wonder why I, a stone-cold atheist since 1954, celebrate the hell out of Xmas. Well, I love xmas, a holiday (like all others I can participate in) for which I get snot-flinging drunk, eat enormously, and mock the underlying superstitions. Until further notice, celebrate everything! I like you and your god, christians. You provide me with an endless source of contemptuous laughter and merriment. Merry xmas, sillies!

  5. John
    December 4, 2012 at 14:25

    Perhaps someone should inform the people at Fox and Christian Zionists that in some parts of Israel, Christian Israeli Arabs are not allowed to put up Christamas trees or decorations where they may be seen.
    And for those who would like to read more MidEast articles I recommend an article in Canada’s national paper the ‘Globe and Mail’ google ‘A Mess of Israel’s Own Making’
    It’s written by Ian Buruma, a professor of democracy, human rights and journalism at Bard College, Annandale-on-the Hudson, NY. He wrote “Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.”

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