While President Obama has decided to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, he has overseen a precipitous de-escalation on another front: the war on Christmas.
The debates that have raged in years past—”Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays”? “Christmas tree” or “holiday tree”?—have largely quieted down in 2009. While it’s impossible to quantify, there are plenty of pseudoscientific indicators to suggest that, yes, the war on Christmas, with or without quotation marks, is over. Or at least in cease-fire.
Because the furor was media-driven in the first place, media mentions seem as good a metric as any. After 2005, Google Trends shows a continuous decline in searches for and mentions of the “war on Christmas.” Media mentions of a “war on Christmas” have fallen steadily as well, according to Nexis: There were 431 articles mentioning it as of Dec. 17, 2006; 187 by that time in 2007; 155 in 2008; and 97 in 2009. Even Fox News, the network that pushed the story in the winter of 2005, has essentially stopped talking about it: At this time in 2005, Fox had aired 80 episodes explicitly referring to the “war on Christmas”; in 2006, there were 24; in 2007, 11; in 2008, five; and three so far this year. The departure in 2008 of Fox News host John Gibson, who penned The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot To Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought, may have had something to do with it.
As a result, some groups dedicated to secularism and the separation of church and state—the anti-Christmas warriors—have gotten fewer invitations to debate the issue on radio and TV. “I usually get called on once or twice every season to talk on Fox News or talk radio,” says David Silverman, national communications director of American Atheists. “I haven’t been called once this season.” There’s also been a sharp decline in demand for the group’s president, Ed Buckner. Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State echoed Silverman: “There hasn’t been the same amount of interest,” he said.
Perhaps one reason for the decline is that several recent “War on Christmas” horror stories turn out to be less than compelling. For example, Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., introduced a resolution calling for an effort to protect the sanctity of Christmas. The reason: The Obamas’ holiday card doesn’t mention Christmas. “I believe that sending a Christmas card without referencing a holiday and its purpose limits the Christmas celebration in favor of a more ‘politically correct’ holiday,” Brown explained. What he doesn’t mention is that President Bush’s card in 2008 didn’t mention Christmas, either (although it did include a Biblical passage). Needless to say, Brown did not introduce a resolution then.
Another recent story alleged that a school in Taunton, Mass., suspended a second-grader and required him to undergo psychological evaluation because when the teacher asked the class to draw something that reminded them of Christmas, the boy drew a picture of Jesus on the cross. The child’s father cried religious bias. As it turns out, the boy was not suspended and the teacher had referred the child to psychological services because he had identified the person on the cross as himself. The teacher feared it might be a cry for help.
Defenders of Christmas also cried foul when Obama’s announcement of new troops to Afghanistan bumped A Charlie Brown Christmas. As Glenn Beck noted, that show includes “one of the most politically incorrect scenes on TV,” in which Linus recounts the story of the nativity. “Maybe we should put everything back in its rightful place and listen to messages that actually mean something,” Beck suggested.
That doesn’t mean some groups aren’t still doing their darndest to protect the holiday from ecumenical creep. Both the American Family Association and Focus on the Family have started rating national retailers based on their Christmas-friendliness. For example, according to AFA’s “Naughty or Nice” list, Costco is “for” Christmas, the Gap and Best Buy “marginalize” the holiday, and CVS and Victoria’s Secret are “against” Christmas. (I just bought candy canes at CVS, so I don’t quite get it.) Focus on the Family’s Stand for Christmas site allows customers to rate the stores themselves. One customer calls Wal-mart “Christmas-friendly” because the company “pointedly says Merry Christmas in all of their television ads.” Another called it “Christmas-offensive” because one of its stores didn’t sell nativity scenes. Conservative Christian groups also took offense at a recent Gap ad that made a point of giving equal time to various holidays. “As a Christian, I don’t put Christmas on the same plane as winter solstice,” said Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokeswoman for Focus on the Family. “It kind of felt like a poke in the eye.”
There’s a distinction, of course, between the “war on Christmas”—essentially a media story pitting aggressive Christmas celebrators against people of other faiths, agnostic Christians, and the occasional atheist—and disputes about the separation of church and state. The latter are going strong. A crèche was recently removed from public property in a suburb of Cincinnati after it caused a stir. Both a nativity scene and a menorah were taken off a courthouse lawn in Luzerne County, Pa., after a warning from the American Civil Liberties Union. A federal judge in Arkansas, meanwhile, allowed a display of secular “freethinkers” to appear alongside various religious symbols at the State Capitol. Those kinds of disputes persist, says Sean Faircloth of the Secular Coalition for America, but they get eclipsed by the “war on Christmas” hype. “Once the novelty of its inherent silliness wears off, people might return to Constitution,” he says.
He may get his wish. Just as the “war on Christmas” has obscured legitimate debate over church and state, other national issues seem to be overwhelming the “war on Christmas.” Health care reform, climate change talks, and tax breaks for bankers provide plenty of fuel for conservative anger—and eat up plenty of air time. And perhaps Obama is diffusing some of the fear that his election would usher in an era of secular humanism. A devout Christian, he has continued many of the religious traditions of his predecessor, including the National Day of Prayer.
Then there’s the rise of third-way groups like the Advent Conspiracy, which embraces the religious aspects of Christmas but rejects the consumerism surrounding it. (Watch their promo video here.) Rather than a war on Christmas, they’re fighting a war for Christmas. Because even the holiday’s biggest supporters agree that it could be a lot merrier.