Saturday, December 21, 2013

Ending the war on Christmas

(photo by Jane, from

Once upon a time America was a Christian nation. By that admittedly vague and inflammatory term I mean that when I grew up, people where I lived assumed each other were Christian unless informed otherwise. (Then, depending on who you were, we thought you either exotic or wrong.) I started school in 1964, two years after the Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court decision on prayer in public schools. While we didn't pray in class, we sang Christmas carols, and prayed before various events. Apollo 8 astronauts celebrated Christmas in their spaceship by reading the creation story from Genesis 1 to an unsurprised nation. Whether going to stores or watching television, it was easy to get the impression that everyone worshiped in the Christian tradition, albeit with varying levels of devotion.

It's hard to say exactly when all that changed. The 1965 Immigration Act opened the national doors to people from non-European parts of the world who had other religious traditions. In those heady days of rights movements, various people more vocally asserted their rights to be free of government-sponsored Christianity. (Tired of the easy assumption that they didn't exist, they began to insist that they did too.) Public officials in some cases overreacted to court decisions. And the drive for profit crashed through restraints such as Sunday openings (extending this year to Thanksgiving evening), turning the season into a retail extravaganza.

It's not hard to understand nostalgia for the days when Christian messages dominated America, and you could glide blithely through the season without wondering who was who. Christians, particularly those with more traditional beliefs, feel something is slipping or has slipped away. I'm not sure that excuses what seem to me blatant efforts to exploit these feelings for political or pecuniary advantage, specifically what someone has declared to be the "war on Christmas." The war anecdotes I've heard over the years tend mostly to be rather arcane local disputes in faraway locations, with suggestions that the incident is more complicated than described, if indeed it actually occurred to begin with.

Yet Fox reporter John Gibson has a book out called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought (Sentinel Trade, 2006). A brief search reveals other books on this subject by Sarah Palin, Brian Sack and Bodie Hodge. Fox News has an online tracker [] that follows stories on this war, and invites citizens to add their own experiences with anti-Christmas atrocities. They've decided already, it seems; it's left to me only to report. There haven't been many stories posted, though, and those that have been aren't self-evidently hostile to Christianity, such as the story out of Indiana where someone asked if Santa Claus could be black. Maybe this whole war on Christmas thing has played itself out.

In a thoughtful column, Lutheran religious scholar Martin E. Marty cautions that it's easy to get angry or snarky about this subject, whichever side you are on. So let us not. Let us instead take this season and its discontents seriously, and consider it from the perspective of our common life, which as you may have noticed is quite the thing on this blog.

Before there was America, before there was Christmas, long before Jesus came to Earth, people in the Northern Hemisphere celebrated this season. For early humans, the longer and longer nights must have been terrifying, not to mention they were doubtless very cold and very hungry. Once our species figured out the seasons, passing the winter solstice meant you were on the way to spring, warmth, and plentiful game. Oh joy! And who better to celebrate with than the people around you, because when it's dark and cold, and food is hard to get, people need to stick together.

That's the key word right there, friends and neighbors: together. But much of American social history is driven by people trying to get away from people they didn't like. The Puritans came to America, not so much for religious freedom as for the opportunity to create new communities untainted by theology they didn't like. The frontier was settled by people who didn't quite fit in the towns of their birth. Suburbs sprawled because people wanted to get away from dirty cities and the dirty people in them, and found that more space meant more privacy. Recent decades have witnessed the remarkable phenomenon of "geographic sorting," as people move to areas where their values are more common. And I, your humble blogger, will readily admit that while I love the people from the town where I grew up (especially if you've read this far), a key factor in my quality of life today was getting the h out of there.

Enclaves of monocultures aren't all they're cracked up to be... they're less interesting, and less resilient. I believe the American rush to enclaves has caused more problems than it has solved, and in the 21st century we'll need to find out how to get along with people not like us. Once we do, we will find our towns and lives more interesting, not to mention satisfying and prosperous.

So if our choices for this season of artificial light are (A) keep arguing and sell as many books as possible; (B) retreat to enclaves; (C) Christians rule and everyone else either converts or sucks it; (D) secularism rules and Christians suck on their memories; (E) no one says anything to anybody; or (F) find a solution that leaves everybody ahead... I choose "F." "Both-and" instead of "Either-or." That means:
  1. recognizing that we need each other all year round, but December's dark and cold most emphatically remind us of it; 
  2. showing "good will to men" and women i.e. meeting others joyfully as fellow humans whoever they are, not suspiciously as potential haters-of-our-values; 
  3. receiving good wishes from others in the spirit in which they're offered... or if they're being angry, rising above their anger.
I would like to wish everyone a "Merry Christmas" whether they're Christian or not, because in my religious tradition it is about the warmest thing you can say to someone this time of year. If I can say it generously, without judgment and without snobbery, can non-Christians hear it in the same spirit? I wish Jewish people would wish me Happy Hanukkah, and Hindus and Wiccans and atheists would say whatever they want to me as long it's friendly, but especially if it represents the best of their respective traditions. We are fellow travelers on a small planet. Life is too precarious and too short to spend December being unpleasant. Blessed be.


Gail Collins, "Cultural War Games," New York Times, 4 December 2013,

Todd Dorman, "War on Christmas Alert--This is Only a Test," Cedar Rapids Gazette, 8 December 2013, 9A, 12A,

Martin E. Marty, "The War on Christmas," Sightings, 9 December 2013,

"War on Christmas," Fox Nation, 16 December 2013,

Andy Williams sings "Happy Holidays (It's the Holiday Season)," 1962,

BBC Radio Scotland's "Out of Doors" program of December 22, 2013, includes discussion of solstice history and folklore at

On geographic sorting, see Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded Americans is Tearing Us Apart (Mariner, 2009)

On American social conditions of the 1950s and early 1960s appearing rosier in retrospect than they really were at the time, see Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (Basic, 1993)

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men in whom he is well pleased!"
--LUKE 2:13-14 (ASV,
(because the NRSV translation is gender-neutral but otherwise seems to support the other view!)

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