Christmas vs. Holiday: How Did America, a Nominally Christian Nation, Get to the Point That a Cheerful "Merry Christmas" Is Seen as Intolerant and Our Gifts Are Placed under "Holiday Trees"?

By Kirkwood, R. Cort | The New American, December 25, 2006 | Go to article overview

Christmas vs. Holiday: How Did America, a Nominally Christian Nation, Get to the Point That a Cheerful "Merry Christmas" Is Seen as Intolerant and Our Gifts Are Placed under "Holiday Trees"?


Kirkwood, R. Cort, The New American


"The President and Mrs. Reagan extend to you their best wishes for a joyous Christmas and a peaceful New Year." In 1982, that was the message appearing on President Reagan's Christmas card to thousands of GOP faithful. In 1983, the "greeting" changed: "The President and Mrs. Reagan extend to you their warmest wishes for happiness at the holidays and throughout the new year." Thus did the Reagan White House stop sending Christmas cards and start sending "holiday greetings."

This semantic change in the official greeting from the White House, probably unnoticed at the time, was not the beginning of the "War on Christmas." That war arises from the enmity to all things Christian among atheists, civil libertarians, leftists, and public school unions, as well as the political, cultural, and financial elites, who abhor anything restraining mass consumerism and "individual liberty." Simply put, it's God vs. Mammon.

Manifestations of the war against Christmas abound, including the American Civil Liberties Union's legal war against "unconstitutional" manger scenes depicting the Nativity in the public square, and even renaming Christmas trees "holiday trees," again, on the public square.

And this war extends beyond Christmas. In public schools, Easter break is "Spring break." Kwanzaa and the Muslim holy days of Ramadan are studied and recognized. Meanwhile, Jesus' birth, the central event dividing, chronologically, the ancient world from the new, has gone down the memory hole: B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era) have replaced B.C. (Before Christ) and A.D. (Anno Domini--The Year of Our Lord).

Most Americans are familiar with the war-on-Christmas stories. They react to them as one would expect: with anger and amazement. They want to "put Christ back in Christmas." They want everyone to remember the "reason for the season."

Recognizing this anger and fretting about profits, Wal-Mart, Target, and other retailers are again using the word "Christmas" in advertising and store displays. Wal-Mart instructed clerks to wish customers "Merry Christmas," as opposed to the drab secularisms, "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holidays." And some municipalities such as Milwaukee are once again decorating Christmas trees as opposed to "holiday" trees.

Still, the question remains: how is it the warriors against Christmas succeeded so famously, and what role did Christians play in their success?

American Christmas

In 2001, writing in Chronicles magazine, church historian Aaron Wolf detailed the history of Christmas in America and how the modern celebration became what it is.

Wolf reported that the war on Christmas began long before the ACLU filed its first lawsuit. The Puritans were anti-Christmas Christians, he observed, who rejected the "organic incarnational understanding" of Christianity--the Son of God becoming man--and banned celebrating Christmas in Massachusetts until 1681.

As Wolf, libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, and others have observed, Puritanism eventually devolved into Unitarianism, which rejected the Incarnation in fact and gave birth to the "reason for the season" that so many Americans now understand: a time of material giving and good deeds. "By 1842," Wolf wrote, "a new interpretation of the holiday was in place."

Wolf and other historians trace the imposition of the liberal spirit on Christmas to Charles Dickens, the Unitarian author of A Christmas Carol:

   I have always thought of Christmas
   time, when it has come round--apart
   from the veneration due to its sacred
   name and origin, if anything belonging
   to it can be apart from that--as
   a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable,
   pleasant time: the only time I
   know of, in the long calendar of the
   year, when men and women seem
   by one consent to open their shut-up
   hearts freely.... And therefore, uncle,
   though it has never put a scrap of gold
   or silver in my pocket, I believe that
   it has done me good, and will do me
   good; and I say, God bless it! 

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