We all know a casualty of the War on Christmas. Maybe it’s a family member who thinks the president is forcing his staff to say happy holidays in front of the socialism tree, or a friend who spends their Christmas Eve joylessly tweeting inaccurate memes about how Christians stole the holiday from pagans. The war has been long, but it continues to reach dumb new heights.
As early as October 5, Tucker Carlson was complaining that Dr. Fauci was single-handedly trying to cancel Christmas with his grinch-y reminders that there’s still a plague on. Reading the entire piece can cause brain damage, but supposedly “Christianity is dying and being replaced by Cult of Coronavirus” even as “Christmas remains stubbornly popular” thanks to everyday Americans who are ignoring attempts by elitist newsrooms to kill the holiday for vague, nefarious purposes.
If it sounds like Carlson is desperate to find fresh grist to feed into his perpetual outrage machine, that’s because he is. But let’s back up. It feels like, as civilians, we’ve been living under these Christmas bombing runs forever. How did we get here? What does the War on Christmas’ nativity scene look like, besides being full of asses?
There have been earlier skirmishes. Christmas in North America got off to a shaky start, getting banned in 1659 by Puritan settlers whose strict theology disapproved of both the holiday and of 17th-century Christmas parties that would put yours to shame. That's right—America has had one official ban on Christmas, and it was created by the most devout of Christians. The ban faded after a generation, and it doesn’t appear a fine was ever levied on anyone who kept their yuletide joy to themselves. In other words, America’s Puritan ancestors saw Christmas as a private affair that shouldn’t be pushed on the public. Take a minute to appreciate the irony.
Christmas obviously recovered from that early blow, but cranks have been worried about its demise ever since. In the 1920s, the Dearborn Independent, a paper owned by Henry Ford, ran a charming little series of articles called The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem. Among other claims so outrageous that the paper was eventually buried by national outrage and libel lawsuits, an editorial argued that Jewish Americans were suppressing Christmas.
Here’s a sample: “People sometimes ask why 3,000,000 Jews can control the affairs of 100,000,000 Americans. In the same way that ten Jewish students can abolish the mention of Christmas and Easter out of schools containing 3,000 Christian pupils.” Swap in a different minority and you could throw that shit on the front page of Breitbart tomorrow.
In 1959, the John Birch Society warned that crypto-communists were conspiring with the United Nations “to take Christ out of Christmas—to denude the event of its religious meaning.” If you’re unfamiliar with the JBS, they were staunch opponents of the civil rights movement, and they never met a conspiracy theory they didn’t like. They’re who QAnon grandpas listened to in their youth. You know the “precious bodily fluids” guy in Dr. Strangelove? He was inspired by their founder.
While Christmas was suppressed and mocked in the Soviet Union, many of its traditions were punted to New Year’s and reshaped to fit state doctrine (and the faith itself continued to survive privately). And, of course, a few obnoxious college kids working through Marx weren’t exactly a threat to the holiday’s juggernaut status in America.
In fact, reading about an actual War on Christmas makes modern American claims look even sillier. Godless liberals trotting out the occasional drag queen Santa for conservative pundits to whine about doesn’t really compare to the mass execution of priests. The Soviets eventually killed somewhere in the range of 12 to 20 million Christians, and ghouls like Carlson make hay by scaring people into believing that the same thing is perpetually on the verge of happening here. If the Starbucks barista says “happy holidays,” it’s obviously just a matter of time before they’re running a gulag.
The precise term “War on Christmas” appears to have been coined in 1999 by Peter Brimelow, a hardcore white nationalist opposed to all immigration to America (despite having immigrated from Britain). You know the type—according to people like Brimelow, if you let a few too many of those nefarious Portuguese in we’ll suddenly be awash in warring drug gangs of pregnant teens. For years, he highlighted the biggest “offenders” on his website, lambasting Amazon in 2000 for welcoming visitors to their website with “Happy Holidays.”
But Brimelow was too much of an extremist, at least by 1999 standards, to be a major pundit. And so credit for the phrase’s obnoxious arrival in the mainstream can be given to Fox News. It began when one of their hosts, John Gibson, released The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought in 2005. Maybe he meant “worse” in the incompetent sense, because you think liberals really would have gotten around to it by now otherwise.
It’s all the usual crap. Gibson claims that “literally any sign of Christmas in public” leads to lawsuits and protests, which must be why there are always angry crowds booing mall Santas. It’s “Back in my day, schools called it Christmas break instead of winter break!” stretched over 200 poorly written pages. Even a reviewer who agreed with Gibson’s premise called it “A somewhat tedious read” and, tellingly, none of his supposed examples of outrageous political correctness run rampant is backed with sources.
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The blame for the conspiracy against Christmas falls at the feet of “ACLU lawyers, Christian haters, and professional atheists,” as opposed to the atheists who are only into arguing online for the love of the game. These secular activists are supposedly coordinating their Christmas offensives, because only once Santa is dead and buried can they advance their plan to legalize drugs, gay marriage, and “abortions at will.” As you can tell from the fact that Obergefell v. Hodges wasn’t celebrated over a heap of slaughtered reindeer, Christmas and progressive policy actually get along just fine.
While the ACLU does occasionally slap down, say, official municipal Christmas trees that display crosses, they also go to bat for students prevented from expressing their faith and prisoners trying to organize prayer groups. But Gibson, or more likely his hack ghostwriter, presented the war against Christmas as the shadowy opening act of a plot to completely purge America of religion, after which you’ll be forced at gunpoint into a mandatory gay marriage down at the ol’ abortion factory.
This was standard fare for Gibson, one of the lesser stars in the Fox News constellation, whose previous accomplishments include mocking Heath Ledger’s death and falsely claiming that the BBC cheered on the Iraqi Army as it fought an American offensive in 2003. Thankfully he’s only written one book since, although its title, How the Left Swiftboated America: The Liberal Media Conspiracy to Make You Think George Bush Was the Worst President in History, is so bad that it counts for four.
Looking back on his book, Gibson told The New York Times he was surprised by how successful it was. Despite its histrionic tone, he claims he was primarily concerned with schools going overboard to appear secular. But when Gibson promoted his work on Fox, Bill O’Reilly and other names you’ll recognize from Satan’s calling card picked up the candy cane and ran with it, taking to the airwaves to complain that a small minority of Americans were supposedly trying to annihilate the holiday in the name of equality.
O’Reilly was full of shit right from the start—a claim he lifted from Gibson’s book, that a school in Plano, Texas had banned red and green clothes near the holidays, was such a ridiculous lie that the school district’s attorney forced a retraction. And it’s worth reiterating that this all unfolded in 2005, one year after the GOP won the White House, House of Representatives, and Senate, while still enjoying the jingoism of largely pro-Iraq War media coverage. Bush even won the popular vote, something no Republican presidential candidate’s managed since. It was a moment of triumph for Republicans, but the O’Reillys of the world needed a way to make their audiences still feel oppressed.
Fox has since returned to the subject annually, and always with the implication that college students are scheming to relaunch the Cult of Reason. Because studies suggest that watching Fox’s coverage of the War on Christmas makes you more likely to believe there is a war on Christmas, it becomes a self-fulfilling worldview. You can probably make the obvious connection to another ongoing event.
Beliefs about the supposed war ebb and flow—despite the fact that the vast majority of non-Christian Americans celebrate or at least find something fun to do on Christmas, one 2021 poll found that about 40% of respondents think there’s a concerted effort to remove Christ from Christmas, which is up from last year but way down from a 2006 poll, which placed the number at 68%. Perhaps not coincidentally, O’Reilly used much of Trump’s time in office to gloat that the war had been won, but now Fox is complaining that supply chain woes are part of Joe Biden’s personal war on the holiday.
You can see the trick being used here. When there’s a fringe group that Fox doesn’t approve of, like professional grinches, they exaggerate the size of their influence, then complain about the enemy they invented. But when there are fringe weirdos that Fox likes, suddenly they represent the mythical every-American. Remember this for 50 years from now, when Neo-OANN is beaming warnings straight into our cyber-brains about the plot to destroy Christmas and Christmas II: Saved in July.
Back in 2008, a Time column argued that the War on Christmas was a hyper-reaction to a '90s “wave of political correctness,” which certainly included a few awkward stumbles on the path to acknowledging that not every American looks and acts like the cast of Friends. It also pointed out that the War was a convenient source of ratings and funds for conservative media. And while the stories the outrage mongers tell keep changing, that basic fact doesn’t.
In reference to the capitalist bonanza that modern Christmas is, good old Bill O’Reilly once said “Every company in America should be on its knees thanking Jesus for being born.” But up until around the 1930s, that stance could have been accused of waging war on Christmas, because Advent used to be a time for quiet reflection and almsgiving as we prepared for another year. Jesus couldn’t sell Coca-Cola though, so here we are. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting presents, but if you want to put the Christ back in Christmas, that’s the way to do it. Anyway, here are some cats singing “Silent Night.”
Top image: Fox News