History Lesson

A Very Ecumenical Christmas

Why conservatives despise the phrase happy holidays.

Once again, it’s time to indulge in the perennial yuletide joys: harried trips to mobbed shopping malls, wasteful spending on pointless presents, spikes in depressive and suicidal feelings. And to these merriments we can now add what is fast becoming another cherished annual rite: defending the tolerant, pluralistic, ecumenical society that most of us have known and loved for decades against the Christian zealots, conservative bullies, and opportunistic pundits who insist that liberals, Jews, Muslims, and other un-American types are waging a “War Against Christmas.”

The Christmas Warriors would have you believe that in the age of George “Jesus Changed My Life” Bush, secularism is newly on the march. Godless liberals, they suggest, have introduced the exotic phrase happy holidays into the lexicon and, in their spare time, have crassly commercialized the sacred observance of Christ’s birth. Actually, it’s these extremists who have grown newly assertive. They object to widespread holiday practices that have been deeply embedded in American life for decades.

Consider, for example, the latest brouhaha: the Seattle-Tacoma airport’s decision to take down Christmas trees rather than put up a menorah as well. After a Lubavitcher rabbi pointed out that the public display of Christian symbols violated the First Amendment, the right-wing Christmas Warriors flooded him with “hundreds of hate mail messages” that were part of “a surge of anti-Semitism,” according to the Anti-Defamation League. Pressured, the rabbi relented and the trees were put back, foregoing any parallel acknowledgment of Hanukkah.

The Christmas extremists can claim a yarmulke for their wall. But let the record show that they, not the rabbi, were seeking to overturn the status quo. For more than 17 years, the law of the land—i.e., the Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court—has held that public holiday displays must be fundamentally secular. To erect nativity scenes in public places, the high court held in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter (1989), is to impermissibly endorse Christianity. Yet the Court also held that governments may “celebrate the season” through joint displays of Christmas trees and menorahs, since doing so acknowledges, as Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, that “Christmas and Chanukah are part of the same winter holiday season, which has attained a secular status in our society.” Far from a victory for hard-line secularism, the 1989 ruling struck a moderate compromise between the ACLU’s desire that no religious displays be permitted and the Christianists’ belief that a city government can proclaim glory to the Christ child.

While the case for equal time for menorahs dates to the 1970s and 1980s, the secular and commercial character of Christmas was solidly established much earlier—certainly by the 1920s. As the historian William Leach has noted in Land of Desire, “the cult of Santa Claus had reached almost absurd proportions everywhere” in that decade, with parades, marketing stunts, and department-store extravaganzas that featured not Jesus but Santa enthroned on an igloo or descending from a zeppelin. Confronted with traditionalists’ fears that the Santa Claus obsession—and holiday shopping in general—were violating the Christmas spirit, department-store mogul John Wanamaker * maintained that “Young people very early grow to understand that it is a mere pleasantry and tradition. I do not believe that it detracts from the story of the coming of Christ.” Most Americans had made peace with Christmas’ new commercial spirit.

The gripes against inclusive seasonal displays and yuletide capitalism found new expression in the sudden outrage over the president’s generic holiday cards. Last year, many conservatives were furious that George W. Bush omitted the word Christmas from his wintertime mailings. The Washington Post quoted William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, saying: “This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture.” Added another conservative religious leader, “I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it.”

But here, too, it’s the foes of the ecumenical greeting who want to destroy a long-standing modus vivendi. Mary Evans Seeley’s book Season’s Greetings from the White House: The Collection of Presidential Christmas Cards, Messages, and Gifts shows that “Season’s Greetings” was used on White House holiday correspondence by no less than Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s. Likewise, Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton all took care, as well, not to alienate non-Christian recipients of holiday mail. Few people expressed a problem with this long-standing practice until now.

It’s fitting that Eisenhower should have pioneered the tradition of all-purpose holiday messages. They typified his belief that, as he once put it, “Our government makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious faith—and I don’t care what it is. With us, of course, it is the Judeo-Christian concept, but it must be a religion that all men are created equal.” His statement expressed the paradox of America’s emerging religious disposition in the 1950s. In many ways, religion was resurgent in public life, with prayer breakfasts, “In God We Trust” added to paper currency, and the words “under God” inserted in the Pledge of Allegiance. Simultaneously, however, the Holocaust had made the merits (indeed the necessity) of religious toleration all the more compelling. Most Protestants, moreover, had come to realize that immigration had permanently transformed the American populace and that for comity to prevail in daily life, diverse creeds would have to coexist. Hence, this was also the golden age of the “interfaith” movement and the spread of that insipid public-relations neologism Judeo-Christian (a phrase that crystallizes the conflation of Christmas and Hanukkah).

Will Herberg’s classic Protestant-Catholic-Jew (1955) captured the detente achieved among America’s three leading religions. The book examined the Eisenhower Era condition of “pervasive secularism amid mounting religiosity.” Herberg concluded that Americans (not unlike Ike) placed a high value not so much on God as on religion itself. “One’s particular religion is, of course, to be cherished and loyally adhered to,” he wrote, “but it is not felt to be something that one ‘flaunts’ in the face of people of other faiths.” Most Americans in the 1950s believed in God, yet insisted that their beliefs didn’t impinge much on their politics or business affairs. And, as Herberg noted, “what is secularism but the practice of the absence of God in affairs of life?” The same mix of private faith and public accommodation—precisely what irritates today’s Christianists—prevails today.

The interfaith, tolerant spirit, ascendant in the 1920s, had by the ‘50s become synonymous with what Herberg called “the American Way of Life.” In the decades since, we have expanded the Protestant-Catholic-Jew troika to include Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and others (although not without some ugly resistance). And, certain terms of the compact have been renegotiated, as when the Supreme Court concluded that prayer doesn’t belong in public schools—though, in keeping with Herberg’s analysis, a moment of silence has remained constitutionally kosher. Overall, the understandings reached by the 1950s have remained an American consensus. Indeed, far from a war on Christmas, this consensus should be seen as a socially useful, ideologically justifiable, and highly agreeable truce.

Correction, Dec. 19: The name of department-store mogul John Wanamaker was originally misspelled in the article. (Return to the corrected sentence.)