Is There A Real War on Christmas

Salon has an interesting article called How the secular humanist grinch didn’t steal Christmas.

I’d like to share some selections from the article and a few thoughts.

“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.

“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.”

Forty-six years later the conversation sounds very similar to what we hear today. And speaking of today here is another remark from the article.

“the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian right legal outfit co-founded by James Dobson, has ramped up its three-year-old “Christmas project,” organizing over 800 lawyers to defend the sacred holiday. “It’s a sad day in America when you have to retain a lawyer to wish someone a merry Christmas,” says Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel for ADF.

Despite Johnson’s lamentations, one can in fact offer Christmas greetings without legal counsel. Christmas trees are permitted in public schools. (They’re considered secular symbols.) Nativity scenes are allowed on public property, although if the government erects one, it has to be part of a larger display that also includes other, secular signs of the holiday season, or displays referring to other religions. (The operative Supreme Court precedent is 1984’s Lynch v. Donnelly, where the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a city-sponsored Christmas display including a crèche, reindeer, a Christmas tree, candy-striped poles and a banner that read “Seasons Greetings” was permissible. “The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday and to depict the origins of that Holiday,” the majority wrote. “These are legitimate secular purposes.”) Students are allowed to distribute religious holiday cards and literature in school. If the administration tries to stop them, the ACLU will step in to defend the students’ free-speech rights, as they did in 2003 when teenagers in Massachusetts were suspended for passing out candy canes with Christian messages.

In fact, there is no war on Christmas. What there is, rather, is a burgeoning myth of a war on Christmas, assembled out of old reactionary tropes, urban legends, exaggerated anecdotes and increasingly organized hostility to the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s a myth that can be self-fulfilling, as school board members and local politicians believe the false conservative claim that they can’t celebrate Christmas without getting sued by the ACLU and thus jettison beloved traditions, enraging citizens and perpetuating a potent culture-war meme. This in turn furthers the myth of an anti-Christmas conspiracy.

“You have a dynamic here, where you have the Christian right hysterically overrepresenting the problem, and then anecdotally you have some towns where lawyers restrict any kind of display or representation of religion, which is equally absurd,” says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates and one of the foremost experts on the religious right. “It’s a closed loop. In that dynamic, neither the secular humanists or the ACLU are playing a role.”

What we often see is the attempt by people to look at history through sentimental eyes. You rarely hear people speak about how good things are today, they always refer to the past as being better. But the thing is people self-censor and omit the negatives of the past and sometimes fail to recognize the privilege of the present.

“Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and the author of “Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in the Public Schools,” is one of the heroes of Gibson’s book. Gibson writes about how he resolved a crisis that arose in Mustang, Okla., when, fearing a lawsuit, the superintendent of schools ordered a nativity scene cut from an elementary school Christmas pageant, infuriating many in the town. Haynes was eventually flown out to mediate. He had, writes Gibson, “made something of a career out of rushing in as if he were driving an ambulance, lights flashing and sirens blaring, after schools had made disastrous policy decisions on restricting religious liberty in schools.”

According to Haynes, though, there is no war on Christmas. “I certainly wouldn’t put it that way,” he says. “The big picture is that there’s more religion now in public schools than ever in modern history. There’s no question about that. But it’s not there in terms of the government imposing religion or sponsoring it, and that bothers some people on the right. They miss the good old days when public schools were semi-established Protestant schools.”

In the last two decades, says Haynes, “religion has come into the public schools in all kinds of ways … many schools now understand that students have religious liberty rights in a public school, so you can go to many public schools today and kids will be giving each other religious literature, they will be sharing their faith. You go to most public schools now and see kids praying around the flagpole before school.”

The reason fights over Christmas iconography recur, says Haynes, is that “there are still some school administrators who are so afraid to deal with religion that they go too far in keeping it out, and it only takes a few bad stories in this era of the Internet for many conservative religious people across the country to think that public schools are hostile to their faith.”

Ironically, when school officials do go too far, the ACLU is likely to challenge them, on the grounds that the government can neither promote nor restrict religious speech. “A lot of the things the ACLU does to help religious people and religious students are not high-profile cases; they don’t get much attention,” says Haynes. “The Christian student who is told she can’t bring her Bible to school, the ACLU gets those kinds of calls, and often it doesn’t become a lawsuit, but they will quietly tell the school you can’t do this, you have to treat everyone fairly.”

Indeed, one case that ACLU president Nadine Strossen loves to talk about is that of Rita Warren, a retired woman who calls herself the “Lone Ranger of the manger” and whose life mission is to put nativity scenes in public places. When she placed a plastic crèche on the lawn in front of the government building in Fairfax, Va., the government ordered her to remove it. Warren called the ACLU, and they discovered that the city of Fairfax had allowed others to erect displays on the property. “Once the government allows displays of any kind to be placed on public property, it can’t then discriminate against some display because of the viewpoint,” says Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. “The government could not discriminate against her religious display any more than it could take specific action to promote her religious display. It has to treat us the same.”

These stories rarely get much play, especially since the ACLU lacks a publicity apparatus that can compete with the religious right. “We’re not in the business to defend ourselves as an organization,” says Strossen.”

Pretty Interesting stuff if you ask me. Funny that you never see any of these things remarked about in print or elsewhere. Maybe O’Reilly needs some new material.

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  1. Anonymous December 13, 2005 at 12:22 am

    I went a link from a commentor. He gave anecdotes such as, two girls suspended for wearing red & green scarves & wishing a “Merry Christmas!” (If that’s ALL they were wearing, I guess that might be a good reason for suspension, no matter what they said!) Seriously, these are anecdotes without full details.
    This is a smokescreen for the real problems in the world.

  2. Jack's Shack November 30, 2005 at 3:07 am


    I just shake my head. Prayer has no place in public school.

    It is true that there is no shooting, and no one died, but there is certainly a lot fewer posters in stores saying Merry Christmas, and a lot more taking the multicultural approach of “Happy Holidays” and a lot of schools are now celebrating the “Winter Holiday” when in past years it was the “Christmas Holiday”

    And this is significant because of what?

  3. Stacey November 29, 2005 at 6:14 pm

    a lot fewer posters in stores saying Merry Christmas, and a lot more taking the multicultural approach of “Happy Holidays” and a lot of schools are now celebrating the “Winter Holiday”

    Yes, and I call this progress. This is as it should be.

    I cannot believe anyone would whine because a Merry Christmas poster now says Happy Holidays. How self-serving and presumptuous of you.

  4. Don Singleton November 29, 2005 at 5:32 pm

    Abraham Lincoln is said to have asked, how many legs does a horse have, if you call its tail a leg. When the person he was talking to said 5, he said “No, calling a tail a leg does not make it one”

    Haynes may say “there is no war on Christmas” although he does qualify it with “I certainly wouldn’t put it that way,”

    It is true that there is no shooting, and no one died, but there is certainly a lot fewer posters in stores saying Merry Christmas, and a lot more taking the multicultural approach of “Happy Holidays” and a lot of schools are now celebrating the “Winter Holiday” when in past years it was the “Christmas Holiday”

    He may say “there’s more religion now in public schools than ever in modern history” but that absolutely is not true. When I went to school we actually had a prayer at the start of the day, and we had days off for Christmas Vacation, etc.

  5. Gothamimage November 28, 2005 at 8:38 pm

    If you read the pamphlete debates in America around the 1800 – Cobbett, Paine, Bache, Duane, and the others – You experience the shock of the old

    – Everything debated now , was debated then – The names of the conflicts and issues were different, but it was all the same.

    This debate has far less to do with religion, than it does with reaction. It’s all symbolic.

    You will always be able to find people on all sides of this issue to provide the proper anecdotal evidence to make seem solid, what is more likely a transient anxiety.

  6. Stephen (aka Q) November 28, 2005 at 2:50 pm

    • Jack:
    I don’t think there’s a “war” on Christmas, either — that’s hyperbole. Having someone take legal action against me is a long way from ever happening.

    • Stacey:
    You’re right, of course. The one thing no one can ever take away from you is what you cherish in the privacy of your heart.

    But look at it this way. As a society, we’re still celebrating Christmas, even if people call it “Happy Holidays”. (Jews excepted, of course.) But Christmas has been denuded of its best elements and we’re left with a public orgy of materialist greed.

    Honestly, it might be better if the state struck this holiday from the calendar altogether. Then those of us who are Christians could celebrate the event for what it really is, in private, as you suggest.

    But no government would ever do so, in large part because Christmas is too important to the economy. That’s what the day has been reduced to.

    It’s a perversion of a spiritual heritage, and I think that’s offensive.

  7. Stacey November 28, 2005 at 4:09 am

    There was a time when…there was also a place for quiet, spiritual reflection: reflection on the love and mercy of God, and God’s incredible generosity toward us in providing the gift of His Son for our redemption.

    I understand what you are saying, but why can’t the time and place be private, in one’s home and/or church.

    I much prefer “Happy Holidays” because that is inclusive, not exclusive.

  8. Jack's Shack November 28, 2005 at 3:27 am

    Hi Q,

    In truth I am not very bothered by comments like Merry Christmas. I believe that most of the people who say such things have no ill intentions or desire to offend anyone.

    And I certainly understand why the commercialism of the season might be offensive to people.

    In large part my response is a reaction to the people whose desire to bring back the good old days seems to have shorn them of courtesy and respect.

    As you saw in the post I constructed about interfaith relationships some of the comments directed towards Jews in particular were very aggressive in tone.

    Even if I agree that there is a war I do not agree that it is of the magnitude that some people claim.

    Also, as I mentioned I think that people are often poor historians. It is important to look hard at what is happening and what the truth and reality of the situation is.

    I don’t have a problem with people wishing everyone a Merry Xmas. I have a problem with the insistence that they be allowed to erect religious paraphenalia within public institutions (read gov’t) and that includes my own faith.

    Moderation is needed and right now it seems to be sorely lacking.

  9. Stephen (aka Q) November 28, 2005 at 1:56 am

    As a Christian, I have some sympathy with those who object to the substitution of “Happy Holidays” for “Merry Christmas”.

    By a happy coincidence, Jews are celebrating Hannukah at this time of year. But historically, Western society was Christian, and this time of year was Christmas — not a generic “Happy Holidays” season.

    I understand the perspective of Jews and other faiths which historically have been marginalized (or worse). You do not want Christianity shoved down your throat, and I don’t blame you.

    But Christians view modern developments from a different perspective. There was a time when one could wear the name “Christian” with honour. There was a time when, amidst the crass materialism and consumerism of the “Happy Holidays”, there was also a place for quiet, spiritual reflection: reflection on the love and mercy of God, and God’s incredible generosity toward us in providing the gift of His Son for our redemption.

    But now, the term “Merry Christmas” is seen as an expression of intolerance, bigotry, and cultural imperialism. The season must be reduced to a purely secular celebration so that no one’s toes are stepped on. As a result, the joyous celebration of Christ’s birth, and the deep meaning it holds, is lost.

    What remains is the unrelenting busyness, stress, people spending themselves into deep debt, and Santa Claus — no longer St. Nicholas — a symbol of acquisitive consumerism.

    This is a loss, not a gain to Western society. Christians have just cause to regret and even resent it.

    You know, Jack, that I do not want to shove my religion down your throat. I don’t suppose there is any satisfactory resolution to the dilemma.

    But try to understand the Christian perspective. The “true meaning” of the season — Christmas — has died a miserable death. We grieve that loss.

  10. Jack's Shack November 27, 2005 at 11:19 pm

    D Dore,

    You use generalities and supposition to build a fake case. But if it makes you feel good.

  11. D. Doré November 27, 2005 at 10:24 pm

    Massachusetts is lighting their new “Holiday Tree”. The US Postal Service will no longer make their traditional nativity stamps, and instead feature “holiday” stamps with things like gingerbread on them. Also, postal employees who deal with the public directly have been expressly forbidden to say: “Merry Christmas” to a customer, unless they are simply replying in kind to the same greeting from a customer. Otherwise they may only say: “Happy Holidays”. Across the nation “Christmas Parades” are being retitled: “Winter Parades” or “Holiday Light Parades”, etc…

    But you are absolutely right. Just because the communist born ACLU and other secular humanist groups have taken 40 – 50 years in succeeding in such large numbers, there’s no war on Christmas.

    People are just stopping EVEN THE VERY USE of the word “Christmas” cause it’s just too difficult to pronounce. Right?

  12. Jack's Shack November 27, 2005 at 9:07 pm


    I do not support the actions of the teacher and think that what she did was wrong.

    Religion should be kept out of the schools.

  13. Daled Amos November 27, 2005 at 8:09 pm

    But there is an imbalance developing. Check out Ann Althouse’s post:

    Is a role-playing lesson about Islam, complete with prayers, permitted in public schools?

    The Ninth Circuit rejected the Establishment Clause claim:

    “During the history course at Excelsior School in the fall of 2001, the teacher, using an instructional guide, told the students they would adopt roles as Muslims for three weeks to help them learn what Muslims believe.

    She encouraged them to use Muslim names, recited prayers in class and made them give up something for a day, such as television or candy, to simulate fasting during Ramadan. The final exam asked students for a critique of elements of Muslim culture.

    U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton ruled in favor of the school district in 2003, saying that the class had an instructional purpose and that students had engaged in no actual religious exercises.”

    That last part could be interesting. Supposedly the teacher had the children recite Muslim prayers in class yet the court says there was “no actual religious exercise”.

    That opens all kinds of possibilities.

  14. Jack's Shack November 27, 2005 at 6:52 pm

    Hi Cynthia,

    I think that we as society spent too little time just accepting the views of those that shout the loudest and far too little time considering the merits and veracity of what they say.

  15. Cynthia November 27, 2005 at 6:36 pm

    This is an excellent post. This is pretty interesting. I guess it’s like that old adage, the wheel that squeaks the loudest will be oiled, in this case, will be heard.

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