This Season’s War Cry: Commercialize Christmas, or Else
By ADAM COHEN
Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They’re for it.
The American Family Association is leading a boycott of Target for not using the words “Merry Christmas” in its advertising. (Target denies it has an anti-Merry-Christmas policy.) The Catholic League boycotted Wal-Mart in part over the way its Web site treated searches for “Christmas.” Bill O’Reilly, the Fox anchor who last year started a “Christmas Under Siege” campaign, has a chart on his Web site of stores that use the phrase “Happy Holidays,” along with a poll that asks, “Will you shop at stores that do not say ‘Merry Christmas’?”
This campaign – which is being hyped on Fox and conservative talk radio – is an odd one. Christmas remains ubiquitous, and with its celebrators in control of the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court and every state supreme court and legislature, it hardly lacks for powerful supporters. There is also something perverse, when Christians are being jailed for discussing the Bible in Saudi Arabia and slaughtered in Sudan, about spending so much energy on stores that sell “holiday trees.”
What is less obvious, though, is that Christmas’s self-proclaimed defenders are rewriting the holiday’s history. They claim that the “traditional” American Christmas is under attack by what John Gibson, another Fox anchor, calls “professional atheists” and “Christian haters.” But America has a complicated history with Christmas, going back to the Puritans, who despised it. What the boycotters are doing is not defending America’s Christmas traditions, but creating a new version of the holiday that fits a political agenda.
The Puritans considered Christmas un-Christian, and hoped to keep it out of America. They could not find Dec. 25 in the Bible, their sole source of religious guidance, and insisted that the date derived from Saturnalia, the Roman heathens’ wintertime celebration. On their first Dec. 25 in the New World, in 1620, the Puritans worked on building projects and ostentatiously ignored the holiday. From 1659 to 1681 Massachusetts went further, making celebrating Christmas “by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way” a crime.
The concern that Christmas distracted from religious piety continued even after Puritanism waned. In 1827, an Episcopal bishop lamented that the Devil had stolen Christmas “and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting and swearing.” Throughout the 1800’s, many religious leaders were still trying to hold the line. As late as 1855, New York newspapers reported that Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches were closed on Dec. 25 because “they do not accept the day as a Holy One.” On the eve of the Civil War, Christmas was recognized in just 18 states.
Christmas gained popularity when it was transformed into a domestic celebration, after the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s “Visit from St. Nicholas” and Thomas Nast’s Harper’s Weekly drawings, which created the image of a white-bearded Santa who gave gifts to children. The new emphasis lessened religious leaders’ worries that the holiday would be given over to drinking and swearing, but it introduced another concern: commercialism. By the 1920’s, the retail industry had adopted Christmas as its own, sponsoring annual ceremonies to kick off the “Christmas shopping season.”
Religious leaders objected strongly. The Christmas that emerged had an inherent tension: merchants tried to make it about buying, while clergymen tried to keep commerce out. A 1931 Times roundup of Christmas sermons reported a common theme: “the suggestion that Christmas could not survive if Christ were thrust into the background by materialism.” A 1953 Methodist sermon broadcast on NBC – typical of countless such sermons – lamented that Christmas had become a “profit-seeking period.” This ethic found popular expression in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” In the 1965 TV special, Charlie Brown ignores Lucy’s advice to “get the biggest aluminum tree you can find” and her assertion that Christmas is “a big commercial racket,” and finds a more spiritual way to observe the day.
This year’s Christmas “defenders” are not just tolerating commercialization – they’re insisting on it. They are also rewriting Christmas history on another key point: non-Christians’ objection to having the holiday forced on them.
The campaign’s leaders insist this is a new phenomenon – a “liberal plot,” in Mr. Gibson’s words. But as early as 1906, the Committee on Elementary Schools in New York City urged that Christmas hymns be banned from the classroom, after a boycott by more than 20,000 Jewish students. In 1946, the Rabbinical Assembly of America declared that calling on Jewish children to sing Christmas carols was “an infringement on their rights as Americans.”
Other non-Christians have long expressed similar concerns. For decades, companies have replaced “Christmas parties” with “holiday parties,” schools have adopted “winter breaks” instead of “Christmas breaks,” and TV stations and stores have used phrases like “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” out of respect for the nation’s religious diversity.
The Christmas that Mr. O’Reilly and his allies are promoting – one closely aligned with retailers, with a smack-down attitude toward nonobservers – fits with their campaign to make America more like a theocracy, with Christian displays on public property and Christian prayer in public schools.
It does not, however, appear to be catching on with the public. That may be because most Americans do not recognize this commercialized, mean-spirited Christmas as their own. Of course, it’s not even clear the campaign’s leaders really believe in it. Just a few days ago, Fox News’s online store was promoting its “Holiday Collection” for shoppers. Among the items offered to put under a “holiday tree” was “The O’Reilly Factor Holiday Ornament.” After bloggers pointed this out, Fox changed the “holidays” to “Christmases.”