According to an email I recently received, repeatedly, the “War on Christmas” is still on this year, with heavy fighting and many casualties on both sides. I notice that I always get these from the pro-Christmas side; never from the anti-Christmas forces, which suggests to me that they’re fairly disorganized. Also, apparently, their major accomplishment, in the eyes of the anti-Christmas brigades, was forcing teenagers at the mall to greet shoppers with “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!” This first suggests that this is the single pussiest war ever (and, yes, I did use that as a superlative adjective). Secondly, it suggests a paucity of accomplishments on the part of the anti-Christmas forces. If they could force the malls to stop playing the same irritating Christmas music for two months out of the year, it would be worth losing a few young lives over.
It is worth thinking seriously about why people are so concerned over this. Okay, honestly, it’s not worth thinking seriously about; but I need a break from my dissertation, so here goes. The first point is that, yes, the “War on Christmas” is largely a media-created “movement” intended to get people to buy books or watch certain television programs. It’s about as serious as the “Disco is dead” movement was in the 70s. However, the people who send me these emails take this issue seriously, which suggests that their serious concerns are being channeled towards a silly cause.
Part of that, I would imagine, is simply that people like to be a part of something. It helps to feel like our unexpressed desires and fears are shared by others and can be expressed collectively. Positioning ourselves against an Other, usually defined as almost comically evil, allows us to make some sense of ourselves in easily defined terms. We are the people who defend Christian tradition, as against those who either don’t or who are thought to attack Christian tradition. This defense, then, is an expression of belief, but also a “good work”. Forwarding these emails demonstrates faith, while perhaps strengthening it. It’s a bit like the Crusades, but really childish and non-violent.
Many Americans worry about the secularization of society. Even in a country with as much religious allegiance as America, it’s noticeable that religious belief plays little role in most people’s daily lives. Few of them seem to have read their own religious books, and instead, many seem to embrace a sort of meaningless pop religion. As a relative outsider, I find this tacky. I would imagine that the devout find it worse than tacky.
It’s worth noting, however, that no serious theologian that I know of has spoken out about this “War on Christmas”. Instead, the crusaders have been simple yeoman douchebags like Bill O’Reilly. One could speculate that the theologians understand the concept of religious pluralism and prefer it to letting the majority decide how faith should be practiced. Or that they don’t want to cheapen faith by reducing it to a catchy marketing slogan. Also, they must know that America is a pluralist society with a secular public sphere and has been since its founding, regardless of what people wish to believe.
I do suspect that this has to do with the never-ending battle about religious expression in the public sphere, a struggle in which both sides have tended towards the obnoxious. Many states have decided that public schools, for example, should nix the Christmas pageants, something that does strike me as heavy-handed, provided that these evening events are still not mandatory. So I guess I’m on the “pro-Christmas” side there. My general feeling is that, if it’s not forced on me, I’m okay with people celebrating their faith, even if they do so in a public building. It’s no skin off my heathen ass.
Next, I think this stuff might be connected to the commercialization of Christmas that people worry about every year. For devout Christians, of course, Christmas is the focus of the religious season of Advent. For everyone else, it is a time of sales and shopping. This tends to debase and devalue the original religious idea. Of course, consumer capitalism tends to debase all cultural traditions, being based, as Adam Smith put it, on the continuous creation and satisfaction of new needs. Traditions are venerable because they have endured. In consumer culture, everything becomes outdated and is replaced with the newer and better thing as a matter of course.
None of this is evil, but it does necessitate a lack of stable fixities, which people tend to find upsetting, especially as they get older. I’ve noticed that I get these emails from people back home that grew up in smaller, homogenous, and organic communities based largely in clans. In their lives, they’ve seen the local businesses replaced by impersonal chain stores and communal religious traditions replaced by “Black Friday” and Blue-Light Specials. I think there is some yearning for something that has been lost.
I also think it’s inescapable that some of that yearning is tied to demographic changes- those small communities are less homogeneous than they used to be, and not everyone has those religious traditions. Some people find it hard to adjust to sharing space with people with whom they haven’t much in common. Others do things like replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” out of courtesy, and this riles up their bitterness about having to adjust to new residents from other cultures.
People have claimed that the “war on Christmas” meme started with white nationalists, which I can’t possibly verify. There is, however, a real animus about cultural pluralism underlying a lot of this. The warriors imagine that the more polite among us are bending to social control and that there has been some sort of power shift. I think, therefore, that the War to save Christmas makes me uncomfortable because it makes the bullying assumption that the majority should show no courtesy towards any minority and that we wouldn’t do so if we weren’t made to be “sensitive”. Instead, my politeness reveals that the “PC Nazis” have forced me to suck up to the Jews, Hindus, and Muslims. Otherwise, I’d be an asshole. In keeping with the teachings of Christ, of course.
So, maybe it’s the focus that bothers me. I think these people just care about exercising a certain amount of power in public, which they’re already able to. Most likely, nobody would care if they said “Merry Christmas”. Of course, they might hear “Happy Hanukkah” in return. That’s the problem, I think. They don’t want to be free to say what they want; they want to make other people say what they want to hear.
Or, maybe they’re just bitching. I think I’d actually approve if they “defended” Christmas by reviving door to door caroling. I haven’t seen anyone do that since I was a kid. Why not express your faith by spreading joy, rather than waging miserable “wars”?
[Note: After spending 20 minutes thinking about this topic I do, in fact, feel a bit stupider. sorry.]