The “War on Christmas” Is About to Make the Pandemic Exponentially Worse

This holiday season, partisan posturing about who hates “family” is the best accelerant the coronavirus could hope for.

An illustration of a Christmas tree with the tree made up of coronavirus molecules.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Elena Mozhvilo/Unsplash.

New York City Councilman Joe Borelli has had enough of the holiday-hating nanny state. In a Nov. 11 tweet, Borelli proclaimed that he and his would have a normal Thanksgiving, complete with out-of-season dessert: “Kids will see their grandparents, cousins will play in the yard, sis in law will bring strawberry rhubarb pie, & a turkey will be overcooked.” Borelli tweeted that last week, in response to the 10-person cap New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo put on indoor gatherings. This week—as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that Americans not travel or see people they don’t live with for Thanksgiving—a festival of right-wing vice signaling has erupted: Real Americans will be having their big holiday gatherings, darn it, no matter what you COVID naysayers say.

Parker Molloy rounded up the week’s extensive right-wing media responses to the idea of Thanksgiving cancellation on MediaMatters. It’s not necessary to quote too many, when they all sort of sound the same. “The Left just wants to cancel our traditions. Don’t let them,” tweeted Danielle D’Souza Gill on Wednesday. Simone Gold tweeted on Monday, after Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot advised that people “cancel traditional Thanksgiving plans”: “We will not cancel Thanksgiving. We will not cancel Christmas. We will not cancel family. But we will cancel lockdowns.” “Be Prepared for Democrats to Cancel Christmas,” was the headline of a column in Breitbart on Wednesday. (To which COVID believers internally replied: Well, yes, if you hold these superspreader Thanksgivings you’re boasting about, everyone’s Christmas is certainly a goner.)

I don’t think it’s really registered yet, on the left, how deadly the collision of the pandemic with the preexisting holiday culture war is going to be. That’s because this particular fight has always seemed so off-the-rails ridiculous to the cosmopolitan types supposedly bent on Christmas’ destruction. The “War on Christmas,” Daniel Denvir wrote in a 2013 “Short History” of the concept in Politico, has become “drearily routine, an annual pageant in which culture warriors line the trenches, and like mechanical toy soldiers in a shopping-mall display, fix bayonets and wage the same battle over and over again.” If the annual battles offer any entertainment value to those on the left side of the spectrum, it’s as an occasion for mockery, gleefully exploited by the likes of Jon Stewart.

The seeds for this slow-motion public health disaster, where family members are highly likely to pass COVID-19 to one another along with the mashed potatoes, were sown years ago. The idea of a “War on Christmas,” Denvir writes, popped up in anti-Semitic writings published by Henry Ford’s Dearborn Publishing Co. in the 1920s; got new life thanks to a pamphlet from the John Birch Society in 1959 (the Birchers were afraid that department stores were going to replace Christmas decorations with “UN symbols and emblems”); resurfaced courtesy of anti-immigration activist Peter Brimelow in the late 1990s; and exploded into full form in 2004–05, with the 21st-century ascendency of Fox News.

Donald Trump, of course, has gleefully used “the war on Christmas” to his own advantage. Last year, around this time, Trump even tried to open a new front in the conflict, claiming at a rally in Florida that “some people” “want to change the name Thanksgiving.” The concept seemed, at the time, to come out of left field, but Mediaite pointed out that the president seized upon the theme right after Fox News commentators chose to pick on a fairly anodyne HuffPost service piece on the environmental impact of Thanksgiving dinner. Of course, people on the left have long leveled critiques at the November holiday’s romanticization of an encounter between white settlers and their Native “hosts,” and pointed out all the misconceptions about American history that this romanticization perpetuates. But there was no new “War on Thanksgiving” afoot—there was just a new way for Trump to paint Americans on the left as family-hating, tradition-hating, joyless freaks.

It’s the idea that liberals are at odds with the idea of “family” that underlies the part of the holiday culture war that’s by far most potent and dangerous in 2020. Consider the tweet I quoted above that suggested that COVID holiday cancellations were just liberals “canceling family.” In 2019, those Fox commentators with the ear of the president chose to misrepresent that HuffPost piece as recommending that you “not travel to see your family.” (In reality, the piece made only a gentle suggestion that readers consider “celebrating with friends and family locally, or finding a spot that requires less travel for everyone.”) And Molloy noted that on Tuesday’s Fox & Friends, commentator Charles Payne described Cuomo’s efforts to restrict indoor gatherings to stop the spread of COVID as tantamount to the “separation of families”—an outrageously offensive repurposing of language used to describe what the Trump administration did at the border in 2017 and 2018.

The claim that liberals want to break down your family may not be the first thing you think of when you consider the so-called War on Christmas, but it’s always there. In a press release titled “Top Ten Reasons Why Liberals Hate The Holidays,” a church in Colorado made this connection explicit. The church collects the religious freedom argument in one bullet point on the list (No. 4: “The letters C-h-r-i-s-t are still seen in public”). Other entries include “College bowl games encourage competition,” “Winter lull in global-warming hype,” and “Christmas lights waste electricity,” but the telling one is “Daycare centers are closed.” “Liberals prefer kids growing up institutionalized in daycare and government schools than having them raised at home by loving parents,” the church claimed.  Hygge weeks of extended family togetherness, the press release argued, are not the future that liberals want.

Documents like these show how deeply the holiday culture wars, which seem so ridiculous to those on the left who love everything about the Christmas season but don’t mind switching to “Happy Holidays” if that’s what makes some people more comfortable, draw from long-standing partisan divisions. The idea that liberals want to break down the family has been gestating at least since the anti-feminist activists of the 1970s, along with their conservative allies, managed to convince everyone that any attempt by the government to intervene in the workings of a household might push us down a slippery slope to communism. The feared meddling included things that some might find materially helpful, like subsidized day care, money for groceries, or protection from domestic or child abuse. Today, apparently, public health recommendations to help your great-aunt remain uninfected by a deadly novel coronavirus have joined the list.

The cultural roots of our public health crisis are deep, and our leadership isn’t helping. Indoor gatherings are killing people, and Americans who have been primed for years to perceive the continuity of tradition around Thanksgiving and Christmas as a point of partisan pride are about to convene some big ones. As we struggle through our pandemic winter toward a vaccine (please, let that be soon), we’d be well-advised to take the “War on Christmas” talk seriously.