In Olympia, Washington, the first shot of the annual "war" has to do with an atheist group putting up a sign opposite a "holiday tree" and a nativity scene. A sign reading, in part, "There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds." And with this simple sign, they caused Bill O'Reilly to have a brain aneurysm.
There's a long history of tension in Washington State. It seems that, in 2005, state Rep. John Ahern (R-Unsurprisingly) took umbrage at the politically-correct "Holiday Tree" in the state capitol, donated by the Association of Washington Businesses.
Ahern objected, saying the thing was clearly a Christmas tree. In protest, he gathered with a few dozen supporters on the steps of the Capitol to sing carols that year. Then he tucked a little "Merry Christmas" sign at the base of the tree, along with a shiny cardboard cutout of a Jewish menorah.As a concept, the War on Christmas is primarily a 21st century construct, promoted by right-wing pundits in an effort to provoke feigned outrage. A similar term ("Kulturkampf against Christmas") was used in 1999 against Housing and Urban Development Secretary Anthony Cuomo (he had ruled that HUD would use multicultural references in a 4-floor holiday celebration - it should probably be noted that the group using this term, VDARE, is opposed to immigration and multiculturalism, and the Southern Poverty Law Center has called them a hate group composed of "racial nationalists").
And so it began. The next year, bearded orthodox rabbis gathered with Gov. Chris Gregoire to light a large menorah in the rotunda. That triggered a request by Olympia real-estate agent Ron Wesselius to erect the Nativity scene.
State officials balked. Wesselius sued. The state settled, and Wesselius last year was allowed to prop up the figures on the Capitol's third floor. As a result, Capitol officials now say they'll honor virtually any request for a religious or political display. As long as it's not disruptive, costs taxpayers nothing and is not seen as the state endorsing any viewpoint, "it's pretty much wide open," said Steve Valandra, spokesman for General Administration, the state agency that issues the permits. "It's free expression."
But that isn't the only shot being fired this year. A member of the Utah State Senate (and, imagine that, also a Republican) is sponsoring a nonbinding resolution encouraging retailers to use "Christmas" instead of "holidays" in their advertising. (Apparently, the Mormon church has successfully solved every other problem in Utah, and they can afford to spend their time and money on this kind of thing.)
Many point to Bill O'Reilly as the leading General in the War on Christmas. He is one of the biggest names to rant against the issue every year, along with other right-wing luminaries (luminarias?) such as Sean Hannity. In 2004, O'Reilly and Hannity worked together to pubicize several examples of "Christmas Under Siege." (The earliest reference I'm finding for this current spate of stupidity is December 10, 2004, although I've found references saying that it was December 3, 2004 when Bill O'Reilly launched his first assault on the subject, as far as I can tell.)
Other right-wing pundits were quick to join in: John Gibson of Fox News actually went so far as to publish a book in 2005 titled "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought."
(We should probably ignore that Bill O'Reilly published a "holiday reading list" .this year - it doesn't mean that he's given up the fight. After all, Fox News annually holds a "holiday party" instead of a Christmas party. Strangely, Bill O hasn't complained about that so far.)
There are even websites devoted to listing every shot fired in this War, and several published "Naughty Lists" of retailers who aren't sufficiently Christmassy.
But this culture of repression is an ongoing theme among some Christians. In 2002, a family in Queens, NY, backed by the Catholic League, filed suit against the City of New York and the Department of Education, saying that their policy allowing secular holiday decoration discriminated against Roman Catholics.
Of course, times change, as does the battlefront in the War. As far back as 1921, in an antisemitic 4-volume set entitled "The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem," Henry Ford complained about "Jewish opposition to Christmas," and even listed several of their attacks on Christmas.
Almost forty years later, the John Birch Society" decided that the villain wasn't Jews, but Communists.
In 1959, the recently formed John Birch Society issued an urgent alert: Christmas was under attack. In a JBS pamphlet titled "There Goes Christmas?!" a writer named Hubert Kregeloh warned, "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 -- to denude the event of its religious meaning." The central front in this perfidious assault was American department stores, where the "Godless UN" was scheming to replace religious decorations with internationalist celebrations of universal brotherhood.With one in four Americans no longer identifying themselves as Christian, you'd think that it would be time to include everybody else in Christmas.
"The UN fanatics launched their assault on Christmas in 1958, but too late to get very far before the holy day was at hand," the pamphlet explained. "They are already busy, however, at this very moment, on efforts to poison the 1959 Christmas season with their high-pressure propaganda. What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations."
But that isn't how the game is played. The "War on Christmas" isn't about peace and goodwill at all. It's a celebration of victimization, more than anything else. It's a continuation of the drumbeat of "Fear the latest enemy!" that's worked so effectively for Bush and company. A former radio news director explains it best.
To begin with, talk show hosts such as Charlie Sykes – one of the best in the business – are popular and powerful because they appeal to a segment of the population that feels disenfranchised and even victimized by the media. These people believe the media are predominantly staffed by and consistently reflect the views of social liberals. This view is by now so long-held and deep-rooted, it has evolved into part of virtually every conservative’s DNA.So if you run across somebody decrying the War on Christmas, just ask them, "If this is really a season of peace and joy, shouldn't you be trying to spread some?"
To succeed, a talk show host must perpetuate the notion that his or her listeners are victims, and the host is the vehicle by which they can become empowered. The host frames virtually every issue in us-versus-them terms. There has to be a bad guy against whom the host will emphatically defend those loyal listeners.