Though intended as a means of spreading good cheer and good will, the holiday season brings with it its own unique set of stresses and anxieties. How long can I put off buying presents? Will my dad like the World War II history book I buy him? (He will.) Which is more unethical – buying from Amazon or giving my aunt her Secret Santa gift a week late? Most folks, especially those well-versed in the contemporary scripture of televised holiday specials, would diagnose these problems as side effects of a culture lacking in “Christmas spirit” and riddled with materialist greed. But while the rest of us sit and fret about gift-giving and familial relations, one vocal subset of the population claims to have found the true culprit for our collective lack of Christmas cheer. No, it’s not rampant commodification, or the fact that all the talk of Christmas as a “time of giving” doesn’t actually do a whole lot to help the lower-class (certainly not delivery people or retail workers), or the recent surfeit of truly terrible Will Ferrell comedies that get released every Christmas weekend. No, these intrepid armchair social theorists have identified once and for all the source of the collective rot lurking in our holiday-hardened hearts: the two simple words of “Happy Holidays.”
If you’ve been living in these United States anytime in the past decade or so, you’ve probably heard somebody somewhere complaining about the “War on Christmas.” Maybe you’ve got a particularly ornery grandpa who enjoys voicing his concerns from the head of the dinner table, maybe the woman in front of you at Target threw a tantrum because the cashier had the audacity to wish her “H***y H******s,” or maybe the TV at the doctor’s office was playing Fox News at full volume and you didn’t have the energy to get up and turn it off. In any case, the conspiracy theory that the no-good liberal establishment is secretly plotting to scrub Jesus Christ’s presence from the Christmas tradition – which, as we all know, is just another step towards mass enforced secularity – has maintained a consistent cultural stranglehold amongst the more conservative and evangelical Christian segments of the population. Other right-wing conspiracy theories (“Teletubbies” secretly turning kids gay, the birther movement, Pizzagate) have come and gone, but the War on Christmas remains. It is to fear-mongering what “Love Actually” is to movies, or what Wham’s seminal 1984 single “Last Christmas” is to music: it derives its staying power from the fact that it lies dormant for eleven months out of the year and is then unleashed at the onset of December to bombard our collective consciousness with Christmasness. The Fox News crowd complains, the normal and sensible people complain that the Fox News crowd are complaining, then when Christmas actually comes and goes without a hitch the “W.O.C.” crowd, who ironically are very rarely WOC, pack it in and whine about something else. And every December, the cycle repeats.
Concern over the War on Christmas parallels almost exactly the peaks and valleys of the popular conservative movement in the 21th century. The actual concept of a “War on Christmas” can be traced back all the way to the late 20th century, from noted anti-Semite Henry Ford to the far-right John Birch Society to 1990s-era white nationalists such as Peter Brimelow and Steve Sailer. But the one person to usher in what we now traditionally consider “the War on Christmas” is everyone’s favorite conservative populist, Bill O’Reilly. As cited by Daniel Denvir of “Politico,” a 2004 report by the O’Reilly Factor warned that major corporations were forcing their employees to say “Happy Holidays” in place of “Merry Christmas.” Despite a dearth of actual evidence, O’Reilly’s colleagues at Fox News eagerly leapt on this phenomenon, and loosely sourced complaints of secular speech and shuttered Nativity displays became a Christmastime tradition as common as the lighting of the Yule Log. The war cries of the Christmas guerillas only grew louder under the Obama administration, as the omnipresent threat of state-enforced Sharia law led the Fox News crowd scrambling to claim the traditions of December as theirs and theirs alone – including former NBC employee Megyn Kelly, who in 2013 asserted on national television that Santa Claus was white. But what rough beast should slouch towards Bethlehem to be born but Donald Trump: as reported by Amy Graff of “SFGate,” not one month after his inauguration did Trump publicly promise that “[the American people] are going to start saying Merry Christmas again.”
It’s not difficult to see why the notion of a “War on Christmas” strikes such terror into the heart of vocal conservatives. Conservative pathology, at its roots, is about clinging to what feels good even if it doesn’t work well. The Bill O’Reillys and Megyn Kellys of the world don’t want to deal with all this business about different religions or different traditions – or God forbid, new religions or new traditions. They want the world to be as it was when they were five years old, when they could walk downstairs and unwrap a real replica Davy Crockett rifle or a Barbie Junior Homemaker kitchen set, and when Santa was real – and white. It’s unfortunate enough that we live in a society where we’re conditioned to be good and giving and tolerant for one month out of the year. We as a people are smart enough to know that there is no so-called War on Christmas, and there probably never will be one, and if there was one – well, would it really be such a bad thing? After all, there’s always Easter.