THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Enjoyed the Coffee

war-on-christmas

It will be starting soon if it has not already. The Atheists are coming with their oppressive, joy-killing, contrarian points of view, which they seek to cram down the throats of the Christian-consumerist majority.

It is coming — just as it does every year. There is no stopping it. As surely as trees are decorated, stockings are hung by the chimney with care, and Bing Crosby sings Irving Berlin’s White Christmas, we brace ourselves for it. It is just part of the routine. You could say it has become a tradition.

The “it” of which I speak is the so-called “War on Christmas.”

The buzz that the media creates touches nearly every part of an otherwise festive season filled with light, color and music. There will be heated arguments over the need for public funding for Christmas lights. Many nearly will come to blows debating the mere use of the word “Christmas” in schools and at public events. Long-winded television commentators will warn incessantly of “a war on Christmas” while politicians will drone on about the separation of church and state. Retailers and their customers will haggle over the use of the phrase Merry Christmas” versus “Happy Holidays.” Scholars will debate over the pagan origins of modern Christmas celebrations while Christian “fundamentalists” will denounce efforts to remove the mention of Christ from any holiday event. I vividly remember that the song, Put Christ Back Into Christmas, was a favorite in the 1950s. Every Christmas season seems to elevate the debate to a new level of absurdity.

Ironically, eleven months of the year Christmas is left alone. The passionate debate largely subsides on December 26 until the season rolls around again. It is a war of the strangest sort. Ultimately, the central message of Christmas is peace and good will. Yet just in time for the season of peace all other burning issues are set aside for this one: the dreaded conflict called Christmas. For the month of December they go to battle. There are never any winners or losers – and the war never ends.

I believe both sides of the debate are wrong.

I believe the media is woefully irresponsible in fanning the flames of controversy.

I believe in the 95% Sentiment: most of us like to keep Christmas and we do not think there are many people offended by it.

I assert that there is a war on Christmas. It is an old and unsettled debate. But it has nothing to do with television pundits, school grounds, city parks or Supreme Courts. The war on Christmas is fought in the home and in the heart.

There is a real danger that one day we will have taken “the Christ out of Christmas.” But that will not happen when people stop saying “Merry Christmas” in favor of “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings.”

Christ is “taken out of” Christmas when we forget what his birth – and his life – are all about.

It is about caring for the poor.

It is about giving things away instead of trying to accumulate more.

It is about loving our neighbors (even ones who do not believe like we do and are not comfortable recognizing another religion’s holiday) as ourselves.

It is about going to other people’s level, instead of expecting them to come to ours.

There is a real war on Christmas. But it will not play out in advertising, marketing materials or on fast food marquees. The real war on Christmas happens in each of us when we try to reconcile the values of a consumer-driven culture with the birth of a savior who wants us to let go of the things of this world.

And that is a war that we must keep on fighting.

If it feels like the “War on Christmas” is getting really old, it is. Over ten years have passed since Bill O’Reilly first opened December with a segment called, “Christmas under Siege” – ten long years in which his cadences and refrains and echoing chorus have become as familiar to most Americans as Handel’s Messiah. Perhaps more familiar, in fact.

Not that Bill O’Reilly invented the idea.

Here is the real irony: For almost 500 years – 500 years! – the folks trying to get rid of Christmas – trying to put distance between Christian worship and mid-winter solstice festivities – were Christians themselves!

A group of English Reformed Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who sought to “purify” the Church of England from its Roman Catholic practices, maintained that the Church of England was only partially reformed. A cadre of these austerity-cloaked Christians who called themselves “Puritans” made their way to the so-called New World. The icy, grim ground they met upon arrival corresponded well with their vision of an authentic Christianity: one shorn of its Elizabethan frills and scrubbed of its insidious pagan stains. It was from this “pure” soil and purified Christianity that these individuals believed a model society would, and must, be born.

Their immaculate beacon would also be born from labor. Historians have noted that New England’s calendar was one of the most physically draining ever adopted, with colonists working practically every day save for the Sabbath, Election Day, public thanksgivings and “days of humiliation.” In 1629, Massachusetts Bay colonists went so far as to make it official company policy that those who appeared to be “idle drones” would not be allowed to live among them.

Christmas, then, posed a problem to Puritanical society. As practiced in Elizabethan England, the day offered both indulgence and idleness, and to the Puritans a painful marking of Christianity’s fall into wanton decadence. Wrote George William Curtis in an 1883 Harper’s Magazine article: “Ritualistic decorations and delights, the pomp and splendor of holy-days…were not only [relics] of popery, but their retention was a sign of the fond cleaving of the Church of England to the hideous abominations of Rome.”

Christmas was not just an annoyance to strong-willed Puritan colonists; its celebration was a threat to discipline, an instrument needed to realize the colonists’ divine, purifying mission. Should the Puritan colonies succeed, Christmas and all it represented had to be buried.

And so it was. Before they officially banned Christmas in 1647, Puritans used labor to suppress the holiday’s observance. Shops were to remain open on December 25, and on the first Christmas in Plymouth, colonists did not rest, but began to build colonial settlements. Wrote one Plymouth colonist: “Munday [sic], the 25th day, we went on shore, some to fell tymber, some to saw, and some to carry, so no man rested at all that day.” He added “that the closest the colonists came to commemorating Christmas was at the tail end of the day, when a master caused us to [have] some Beere [sic].”

Outside of Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed the holiday in 1659, punishing those caught celebrating Christmas with a fine. Colonists in Connecticut went so far as to prohibit the making of minced pies, dancing, playing cards and any instrument except – inexplicably – the drum, trumpet, or Jew’s harp on December 25.

The faithful held the holiday hostage until 1681, when laws banning Christmas were repealed. Over the decades, though, anti-Christmas attitudes had been woven into New England’s cultural fabric, and thus did not bend in accordance with the ambivalences of the law. Well into the nineteenth century, Boston schools remained open on December 25, and students who missed class to await the gifts of Santa – whom many Puritans believed to be both pope-like and, perhaps not so coincidentally, the Antichrist – were punished. The nearly 200-year Christian war on Christmas would only end after an 1870 federal intervention, when President Ulysses S. Grant made the day a federal holiday in an attempt to unite the post-war North and South.

But where Puritanical fears centered on how the holiday would affect labor and encourage excess, today’s Christmas crusaders focus the holiday around themes of consumption and fears of cultural erasure. In its annual “Naughty or Nice” list, for instance, the American Family Association rates a company’s apparent morality – and therefore deservedness of business – according to how often the word “Christmas” appears in its holiday advertisements. To receive a perfect score, an honor that no such business has received yet this year, a company must “promote and celebrate Christmas on an exceptional basis.” To be deemed “nice,” a business must use the term “Christmas” on a regular basis in its advertisements. “Naughty” companies such as The Gap Inc. and Amazon. Com, Inc. fail to acknowledge the holiday, or use its name in just one form of marketing. Occasionally, American Family Association will select one company on its “Naughty” list to boycott from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Indeed, the very material excesses against which the Puritans railed in their centuries-long “War on Christmas” are those that today’s crusaders use to quantify their perceived persecution – and employ as weapons against their apparent aggressors.

In a November 2015 article, American Family Association’s Vice President Ed Vitagliano ends his piece by saying that “a good smear [by the secular news media] is quicker and cheaper than actually trying to understand us.” Likewise, it might behoove Vitagliano to try to understand the history of the “war” that he inherits. For better or worse, the “War on Christmas” that actually existed was waged in labor and law, and as a founding principle. Today, the supposed war assumes a more reactionary stance, apparently taking place in holiday ads, chain coffee shops, and the salutations of supermarket cashiers. Quite frankly, that is a pretty cheap take on faith, and Christianity’s materialism-decrying savior. Maybe the Puritans were onto something after all.

Now, this phony war has a new field marshal and his name is Donald J. Trump, our President-Elect, who promised the moon and the Supreme Court to Religious Right leaders during his campaign. Trump has pledged to save Christmas from imagined threats. He promised, “If I become president, we’re gonna be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ at every store … You can leave ‘Happy Holidays’ at the corner.”  Another time he said, “[Remember] the expression ‘Merry Christmas?’ You don’t see it anymore. You’re [going to] see it if I get elected, I can tell you right now. I can tell you right now.” Michele Bachmann, that paradigm of intellectual curiosity, said, “When I was growing up, everyone said ‘Merry Christmas,’ even my Jews [sic] would say ‘Merry Christmas.’”

Trump pushed for a boycott of Starbucks because their coffee cups were not Christmas-y enough, and his son Eric said that his father decided to run for president after he read that the White House replaced the Christmas tree with a “holiday tree,” – a tree that did not exist because the report was not true.

Of course, it is not clear how Trump thinks a president could force people and businesses to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays.” And it is even less clear how anyone who purports to be for religious liberty and limited government would think it is any business of the president’s how people express their good wishes.  But then again, this is the guy who told people on the campaign trail how great things will be when Americans are working together as “one people, under one God,  saluting one flag.” It is the phrase “under one God” that is catching the ear of some groups, who argue that the phrase is at odds with the American promise of religious freedom. “One God” immediately excludes Hindus, atheists, Native Americans – whole swaths of people who have a right to be part of the American identity, and under what we have established in this country – the notion that you can have multiple faiths and all still share the same ideal of being American.

Outrage is Donald Trump’s specialty, and he is not too proud to piggyback on other peoples outrage about, say, seasonal Starbucks cups. Vague, impossible campaign promises are Trump’s secondary specialty, and apparently the Starbucks cup brouhaha is good for one of those, too: “I have one of the most successful Starbucks in Trump Tower, Trump said during a campaign event in Illinois. “Maybe we should boycott Starbucks? I don’t know. Seriously, I don’t care. By the way, that’s the end of that lease, but who cares? If I become president, we’re all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you.

It was a rare moment of provocative apathy for The Donald, considering that he was referring to the kind of peevish campaign that is right up his alley: a video going around the Internet by Joshua Feuerstein – a person who calls himself “an American evangelist, Internet, and social media personality” – raging against “the age of political correctness” and the new seasonal coffee cups at Starbucks.

Do you realize that Starbucks wanted to take Christ, and Christmas, off of their brand-new cups? That’s why they’re just plain red,” Feuerstein said.

Well, just to be clear, the long-haired, chill-looking person on Starbucks’ cups is not Jesus – she is a sixteenth century Norse woodcut of a twin-tailed mermaid, or Siren. And though Starbucks says it “has told a story of the holidays by featuring symbols of the season from vintage ornaments and hand-drawn reindeer to modern vector-illustrated characters” since 1997, there was never a time when someone could sip a latte out of a nativity-scene-decorated cup.

Do you realize that Starbucks isn’t allowed to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to customers?” Feuerstein continued.

In an email, a Starbucks spokesperson said that the company’s baristas “are not provided a script or a policy around greeting customers. They are simply encouraged to create a welcoming environment to delight each person who walks through our doors.” So, no, Feuerstein is not right – there is no ban on Christmas greetings at Starbucks. That being said, Starbucks is a global company that serves millions of customers per day at over 23,000 stores in 68 countries, including the United States, which is home to people who celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, other holidays, or nothing at all in December. They cannot, as a matter of protocol, wish everyone a Merry Christmas. For those who really, really need their barista to wish them a Merry Christmas to find their delight, Feuerstein has a solution: “Tell her your name is ‘Merry Christmas,’ and then she will have to say it when she has fixed your hot beverage of choice.”

Yet, under President Trump, you will say Merry Christmas and you will like it. But one place you will not say “Merry Christmas” will be at the Starbucks in Trump Tower because it will be gone. Maybe gone along with all the other Starbucks, because of the Red Cup Battle of the War on Christmas leading to a devastating Trump-led boycott bringing down the entire company. Who knows?

And it will serve Starbucks right for taking the reindeer off of their coffee cups so that we can no longer drink lattes and simultaneously commemorate how, in the Bible, Rudolph’s nose lit up the manger where Mary was giving birth to Jesus while Dasher and Dancer, Prancer and Vixen, Comet and Cupid, and Donner and Blitzen led a special mission to fly in the three wise men to the manger.

This Starbucks red cup thing needs no more press. Some are upset that Starbucks’ holiday disposable cup does not say anything about Christmas. I would hope that Christians are too busy with doing the things that Jesus said to do as he read from the scroll of Isaiah (Luke 4:17-19) than to worry about cardboard graphics.

With that said, here are my top five things to think about this December.

  1. Use a refillable mug, and fill it with decaf. It seems some folks do not need any more caffeine.
  2. Economy and evangelism have a tense marriage. We should host a potluck, and have both sides sit down for a good conversation. It seems like one is trying to tell the other how to live rather than listen to what it is about.
  3. Jesus actually never celebrated Christmas; he celebrated Hanukkah (Chanukah.) Boycotting an establishment because they say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” seems to me to be just plain stupid. If someone says “Happy Holidays” to you, just say “Thank you.” Don’t be a jerk. For those keeping score, using “Holidays” is more correct anyway.
  4. There is no war on Christmas … however, there is one in Syria. ‘Nuff said.
  5. Jesus’ birth is the eye of a storm that continues to turn the world upside down. Jesus was born in the lowliest place on earth and the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest.” So fill your cup with good things (red, blue, rainbow … I do not care) and share goodness sacrificially with the world.

The Christmas season is officially upon us. Well, at least Advent is upon us.

The holiday decorations are up in malls and homes. Shoppers are out in full force. And soldiers are enlisting, once again, for the all-important annual tradition – the war on Christmas.

There is no doubt that the war on Christmas continues and Bill O’Reilly may have fired the first shot in the battle with an opinion segment a week before Thanksgiving. Over the next few weeks, the good cheer of the season will be peppered with stories of oppressive governments and secular retailers facing off against valiant defenders of Jesus’ birthday celebration, which probably did not occur on December 25 in the first place, but do not let that observation get in the way.

And as the war heats up again, I realized that when it comes to this annual tradition, I am a proud card-carrying Christmas pacifist!

So “Happy holidays,” er, I mean. . . “Merry Christmas!”

 

 

 

 

 

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