Like many talking points of this administration, the “assault” on the phrase “Merry Christmas” seems like a petty and unimaginative persecution fantasy. And yet, our president recently declared victory in the war on Christmas, giving himself credit for the win, tweeting, “People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!”
And his supporters have praised his victory, with Fox’s Todd Starnes and prominent evangelical Franklin Graham publicly thanking him for putting Christ back in Christmas. But for many Americans, this all feels like we are living in some alternate reality. Has there really been a war on Christmas going on all this time without our witnessing it? How can so many people be convinced that there was an “assault” on a phrase? Where was all this happening? Who were the casualties of this war? What did Trump actually do to stop this “assault”?
If you share this confusion, the temptation is to write off Trump’s rhetoric and move on. But that response doesn’t address the question of why this rhetoric is so effective. What is it about Trump’s promise to bring back “merry Christmas” that has resonated with so many Americans? Even if it seemed absurd to talk about bringing a phrase back — a phrase that was never banned in any meaningful sense — it wasn’t absurd to many of our neighbors. Instead, his promise served as both a relief and a validation. Why?
On the surface, the conflict is over retailers using “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” in their advertising, in-store signage, and greetings. But it’s about so much more than that. Even as President Trump worked the campaign trail, he promised, "If I become president, we're all going to be saying, 'Merry Christmas' again. That I can tell you." What he’s been promising all along is a national vocabulary change. Specifically, one that moves away from phrasing often perceived to be more politically correct and multicultural to one that refers to one faith’s holy days: Christianity, the founding faith of our country, according to many Trump supporters.
Still, if Trump’s supporters are concerned about our national identity turning from its Judeo-Christian roots, it does seem like season’s greetings are a trivial place to resist this change. Shouldn’t they be more concerned about shifting beliefs and values than language? Consistently, when conservative pundits decry the use of “happy holidays” in our public discourse, their argument is that the change in language is really part of a larger assault on western civilization, Judeo-Christian values, or “our” way of life. “Merry Christmas” doesn’t stand for a celebration of the incarnation (the religious meaning) or Judeo-Christian values in a politically correct society (the culture war meaning), it replaces those meanings.
According to Snopes, the earliest modern use of the phrase “war on Christmas” is traced back to a post on VDARE, a white supremacist website in December of 2000. In the article, the author calls the “war on Christmas” “part of the struggle to abolish America.” In 2005, Bill O’Reilly framed the “war on Christmas” as a secular plot:
All over the country, Christmas is taking flak. In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the holiday tree and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores, [that's] Macy's, have done away with the Christmas greeting, "Merry Christmas."
Now, all of this anti-Christian stuff is absurd, and may even be a bias situation. But the real reason it's happening has little to do with Christmas and everything to do with organized religion.
Secular progressives realize that America as it is now will never approve of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation, and many other progressive visions because of religious opposition.
But if the secularists can destroy religion in the public arena, the brave new progressive world is a possibility.
Now most people, of course, love Christmas and want to keep its traditions, but the secular movement has influence in the media, among some judges and politicians. Americans will lose their country if they don't begin to take action. Any assault on Judeo-Christian philosophy should be fought.
Notice that O’Reilly lumps in religious floats and Macy’s use of “merry Christmas” alongside opposition to abortion as part of “Judeo-Christian philosophy.” If we let the secularists say “happy holidays,” soon it will not be socially acceptable to oppose abortion and support traditional marriage.
O’Reilly was wrong about the causal relationship between a season’s greeting and the achievement of progressive goals, but I think he hints at a truth here: Social acceptability, which is shaped by the media and marketplace, largely defines our political discourse. In place of debating the substance of a political position, we resort to signaling, shaming, hashtagging, and posturing. And many Trump supporters believe that they have long been on the losing end of these conflicts, making their views socially unacceptable. “Merry Christmas” is an opportunity to win something back.
This year, President Trump strongly echoed O’Reilly at the Values Voter Summit. After listing several ways he was fighting for religious liberty, Trump said:
We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values. ... And something I’ve said so much during the last two years, but I’ll say it again as we approach the end of the year. You know, we’re getting near that beautiful Christmas season that people don’t talk about anymore. They don’t use the word “Christmas” because it’s not politically correct. You go to department stores, and they’ll say, “Happy New Year” and they’ll say other things. And it will be red, they’ll have it painted, but they don’t say it. Well, guess what? We’re saying “Merry Christmas” again.
Getting people to say “merry Christmas” is part of “stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values.” Yet, when Trump declared victory earlier this month, there was no hint of these deeper meanings: “I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!” The assault was on the phrase, not what it represented.
The irony of making a phrase the battleground for deep cultural conflict is that, almost inevitably, the substance of the conflict fades in the background, leaving you with a “cherished and beautiful phrase.” As a conservative Christian, I could care less about the phrase “merry Christmas,” but I do care very much that the incarnation of Christ is the story of Christmas, and whatever secular trappings have been added to the holiday are trivial in light of this truth.
As far as I’m concerned, the phrase shouldn’t be the subject, but for Trump, and for many people, it is. And what matters most of all is that more people are saying the phrase. What matters is that retailers use it in their advertising and require their employees to say it to customers. What matters is that people can say “merry Christmas” to strangers without worrying about offending people, because it has become politically correct.
All of this may sound absurd, until you consider the nature of politics, identity, and branding in 2017. Then, it is still absurd, but it is part of a much larger absurdity at the center of our public discourse. Inspired by marketing and social media, and motivated by a desire to establish our identity in the world through expression of preferences, American politics is dominated by hollow rhetoric. Identifying ourselves with a trending, politicized, tribal phrase feels more important than making a substantive argument in public, or believing in a particular political principle. And in this shallow public discourse, frequency and popularity — “political correctness” — has more weight than truth. What matters most is winning the cultural war, even if we are just fighting over words whose meanings have faded long ago.
When Trump supporters cheer him on for reclaiming “merry Christmas,” they are cheering because they believe that his influence has been enough to make the phrase popular again, and since that phrase represents them, they in turn become more socially acceptable. It doesn’t really matter that former president Barack Obama regularly said “merry Christmas” or that saying it was never actually politically incorrect. What matters is that it feels like the phrase is socially acceptable again, and in our political climate, there is something very affirming about holding the proper view.
The tragedy of all this for me, as a Christian, is that in trying to defend Christmas from secularism, the “war on Christmas” pundits have only politicized and secularized Christmas further. But the only meaningful answer to all of this is to insist on substance, to produce and engage political discourse that goes beyond memes and rhetoric to substantive debate.