EDITORIAL: The phony ‘war on Christmas’ returns

York Dispatch Editorial Board
Light Up York in York City, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019. Dawn J. Sagert photo

It’s December, which means retailers’ cash registers are ringing, eggnog has replaced pumpkin spice and cultural conservatives are up in arms over supposed attacks on Christmas.

The “war on Christmas” fiction was popularized in the mid-2000s by Fox News and its then top banana Bill O’Reilly. O’Reilly is gone, his career crushed under the weight of repeated sexual harassment allegations, but the phony war lives on.

“The cultural war on Christmas keeps raging,” is the headline of a recent Boston Herald essay in which columnist Joe Fitzgerald longs for the good ol’ days, “when a corporate giant like John Hancock had no qualms about distributing thousands of Christmas carol booklets to Boston schoolkids. No one found that inappropriate; no one saw it as proselytizing.” No one he associates with, perhaps.

Todd Starnes, writing for the conservative website TownHall, chimes in with a column headlined “War on Christmas is a War in American Values.”

“The war on Christmas is really a war on the foundation of our nation — the belief that we are one nation under God,” he laments, misleadingly. (“The genius of the Declaration is the inclusive way the divine is given expression,” writes Anthony J. Minna in the Journal of the American Revolution. “The appellations of God are generic.” That is, not definitively Christian. In fact, the “under God” Starnes references wasn’t added to the Pledge of Allegiance until the mid-1950s).

And all heck broke loose in Charleston, South Carolina, this fall when the new mayor, in an effort to show that Charleston “is a welcoming and inclusive city,” suggested rebranding the annual Christmas Parade as the Winter Parade. She retreated in the face of criticism by local residents, media types and, yes, Fox News.

If America’s conservatives are good at anything, it’s displaying anguished aggrievement when their primacy is challenged (think Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings). The so-called “war on Christmas” allows them to play the victim fortissimo voce.

Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker exemplified this with an early November Twitter message. “This is a Christmas tree used by people celebrating Christmas,” he tweeted over a photo of — you guessed it — a Christmas tree. “This is not a holiday tree.”

It was a pointless and unnecessary message, intended only to provoke. No one is telling the Walker family how to refer to their Christmas tree.

And no one is at war with Christmas. This bit of annual holiday hooey is cynically manufactured and needlessly divisive. It is also peculiarly reflective of the conservative mindset:

  • It allows the majority to claim its “rights” are being violated by the minority, the same argument on which so-called religious liberty policies are based, with the same result: minority populations are expected to comport to the majority preference.
  • It favors exclusivity over inclusiveness. Charleston’s mayor wanted to portray her city as “welcoming and inclusive.” A loud chorus of Charleston’s citizens pushed back. (Thankfully, many cities, including York, are heading in the opposite direction. For the first time ever this year, a menorah was lit alongside the Christmas tree in the annual Light Up York ceremony.)
  • It favors “me” over “we” — a key tenet of conservative thinking. “We” can’t have common-sense gun violence laws if they touch on “my” rights. “We” can’t say “Happy Holidays” if “my” preference is “Merry Christmas.” It’s a decidedly selfish perspective.
  • It provides an excuse for trumped-up righteous indignation over a perceived (actually, a concocted) slight. From the “Red Scare” of the 1950s to the “Ground Zero mosque” debate of the 2000s, to political fantasies surrounding migrant caravans and a nefarious Deep State today, conservatives have long warmed themselves on the heat generated by conspiracy theories.

Reflecting their ideology as it does, if the “war on Christmas” didn’t exist, conservatives would have had to invent it. Which pretty much explains why they did.